As Phnom Penh officials look to close the books on the long-running Borei Keila land dispute, evicted residents are balking for much the same reasons they have for the past 10 years: The compensation on offer is not what they were promised.
In 2004, the residents were told they would receive flats in 10 buildings to be constructed by the developer Phanimex, but hundreds of families were left in limbo when buildings 9 and 10 never materialised – except they did, albeit not in the way residents were promised.
Documents obtained by The Post show that Phanimex owner Suy Sophan obtained private titles for the land originally slated for resettled residents. She appears to have sold the land later to another powerful businesswoman. Now, with more than 40 Borei Keila families still in negotiations with City Hall over compensation, a new complex – built from the unfinished shell of Building 9 – is being rented out at market rates.
According to the documents, in April 2010 Phanimex requested ownership of the land. In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Hun Sen, the company maintained that “the real demand of the people” only required eight buildings for 1,392 families. Suy Sophan wrote that she had invested $10.7 million in the eight buildings, in excess of the $7.1 million planned investment for the 10 buildings agreed upon in 2004.
To make up for the alleged loss, she requested land titles for the 4,300 square metres where the two buildings slated for resettlement were supposed to stand. Eight months later, in January 2011, a letter signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen and Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema granted the request. Chuktema could not be reached yesterday.
Sophan last week insisted that the land in question was separate from the Borei Keila conflict and had always belonged to a businesswoman named Seng Vuoch-Leang.
“The Borei Keila villagers always suspect the land is the Borei Keila project, but in reality it’s not,” she said.
But when confronted with the letters yesterday, she hung up on a reporter without answering further questions.
A previous 2016 statement from Sophan to the Cambodia Daily, in which she is quoted as saying that she sold the land to a woman named “Seang Vung Leang”, seems to contradict her claim that the land had never been affiliated with Phanimex.
While Borei Keila residents are still demanding a compensation they view as fair, about 15 families are now renting units in the three-storey Western-style apartment block constructed from what was once the concrete shell of Building 9. Where Building 10 was planned, there is now a garage.
Meanwhile, a City Hall-issued deadline to accept compensation or forfeit it entirely came and went at the end of last year. Holdouts have been offered cash payments or relocation to the Andong resettlement site on the outskirts of the city, which they maintain lacks essential services and employment opportunities.
Tim Sak Mony, a Borei Keila evictee who had been jailed for more than three months because she protested the eviction, said she didn’t want to leave the area.
“We didn’t receive a home in Andong, because the government told us since 2003 and 2004 that we would be relocated [in the buildings] on-site. Why move us to Andong? I have no money to move or to build a new home in Andong,” she said.
Fellow Borei Keila resident Ngov Nary was angry that authorities had threatened them to move to the relocation site, she said.
“Now we are still concerned. I heard some authorities threatened that if we don’t accept the resolution of relocating to Andong, they will take administrative action to evict us from this old building,” she said, referring to the building where many of the evictees live without permission. “Every protest they also threaten us that they will arrest us and send us to the court.”
The manager of the new apartment building, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he rented each apartment for $250 a month. Just over half of the 30 units are being rented out, he said, attributing the slow demand to ongoing protests making people hesitant to move in.
The manager said the landlord of the building is Oknha Seng Socheat, who explained that he secured a lease for the property about three years ago. The contract, signed with Seng Vuoch-Leang, lasts for eight years. “I just rent the building from Seng Vuoch-Leang, but I don’t know whether Seng Vuoch-Leang is involved with Phanimex company, or whether she is involved with City Hall,” he said.
Vuoch-Leang is listed as director of J&R Import Export and Construction Co, Ltd, which has been involved in land swaps with the government in the past. One of these swaps was between the Siem Reap provincial government and J&R in 2010, with land in several inner city locations exchanged with the company for space located some 16 kilometres outside the city.
According to a Cambodia Daily article, photographs in a J&R office showed Seng Vuoch-Leang’s family together with Prime Minister Hun Sen; his wife, Bun Rany; recently deceased Cabinet Minister Sok An; and Defence Minister Tea Banh.
Repeated attempts to reach Vuoch-Leang and her family were unsuccessful.
Vann Sophath, a project manager with the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the land title granted to Phanimex at Borei Keila showed clear abuse of the 2004 agreement and was the “root of the problem”.
“Since the beginning, a land title should not [have] been delivered to the company,” he said.
“Authorities must have known that hundreds of families would be affected by this . . . abuse and this land title delivery to the company.”
But authorities have been reluctant to discuss the land deal. Mean Chanyada, deputy city governor and chairman of the municipality’s Borei Keila dispute resolution committee, directed questions to municipal spokesperson Met Measpheakdey, who initially offered to answer questions, but did not return subsequent calls. District Governor Lim Sophea could not be reached.
Current Phnom Penh Governor Khoung Sreng, meanwhile, declined to comment.
“Don’t talk about Building 9 and Building 10,” he said, before hanging up.