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For communities, threats routine

Notices put up by community members hang in front of houses involved in a land dispute in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kork distric
Notices put up by community members hang in front of houses involved in a land dispute in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kork district. Pha Lina

For communities, threats routine

Two disputes involving a land developer with ties to the highest ranks of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party have once again exposed the lack of justice faced by impoverished communities in the capital, affected residents and rights groups have said.

In Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kork district, three families are holding out against a daily routine of threats and intimidation from a group of “gangsters” they say have been ordered to make their lives a living hell by tycoon Khun Sear, a politically connected businessman who has major interests in agriculture and real estate.

Since last year, Mok Seav Horng has taken to bolting herself in her corrugated tin shack day and night to prevent the men from stealing her property.

“They threaten us with metal bars and samurai swords,” she said of the dozen or so men keeping a lethargic watch over the houses. “It’s very hot in the house, but I’m afraid of being outside in case the security guards move into the house to destroy my things.”

Sear’s company, registered as Khun Sea Import Export, intends to open a garage on the site, according to documents in which the company claims it gained ownership of the land after cutting a deal with the authorities in 2010.

But the involved families say the company’s high-level political connections have resulted in the government ignoring multiple attempts to register the land, even prior to the 2010 agreement.

Yim Leang, son of Deputy Prime Minister Yim Chhay Ly and head of Senate President Chea Sim’s bodyguard unit, is listed as a major shareholder in the company. Leang’s sister, Yim Chhay Lin, married Prime Minister Hun Sen’s son, Hun Many, in 2004.

Representatives of Khun Sea Import Export could not be reached yesterday.

“The authorities, the courts, the company – they are cooperating in a very cruel way to evict these families,” Nan Ony, legal officer with the Housing Rights Task Force, said.

The Council of Ministers issued a letter in October 2010 effectively signing over the land to Sear, a decision formalised by City Hall’s cadastral department last year.

Workers erect a brick wall next to a road on contested land yesterday in Phnom Penh
Workers erect a brick wall next to a road on contested land yesterday in Phnom Penh. Pha Lina

“Even though it’s a small plot of land and just a few families, I think it’s the most serious violation in Cambodia, because they are [intimidating the families] every day in front of the authorities,” Ony said.

The dispute came to a head last year after a series of reported attacks against the families, including assaults by men armed with metal bars and axes, raw sewage being poured on their houses, and even a bag of cobras being thrown into one house.

“Nothing has been done to protect us and no one has been arrested. They are using thugs and security forces to push us out and monitor us all the time,” Seav Horng said.

As Sear seeks to expand his business empire, other communities are becoming embroiled in disputes with the tycoon.

In Meanchey district, Khun Sear is developing large tracts of land along the under-construction Techo Hun Sen Boulevard. On Tuesday, 170 families in the district’s Chak Angre Leu commune filed a complaint to City Hall after the company began to build a wall obstructing the access road into Prek Tanou village.

Tech Sim, 51, a representative of the villagers, said the community is worried that fire engines will not be able to access the village if the authorities do not intervene.

“We are not against his [Khun Sear’s] development, but we need him to give back our road to allow fire trucks to come here when fires break out,” she said.

Chreang Sophan, deputy governor of Phnom Penh, said he did not know precisely what the company was building in Prek Tanou.

“We will open the meeting with the villagers in order to resolve their problem, and we have sent officials to investigate,” he said.

Chan Soveth, senior investigator at rights group Adhoc, said that the two disputes are indicative of a system that provides for the rich before the poor.

“Most of the government officials display favouritism towards the rich. They are not brave enough to take responsibility and find the evidence to provide justice for poor communities,” he said.

Sok Huch, 48, said she has lost her income as a medic because she has been too afraid to leave her house at the Tuol Kork site.

“We cannot go outside to earn a living. I am skilled as a medic, I used to treat people in the clinic. But now I cannot leave my house,” she said.

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