OFFICES of the Ministry of Cults and Religions have been transferred to local investment company Pheapimex in a property deal that some observers say is an example of the malfeasance that characterises the Kingdom’s public land management.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, officials from the Ministry of Cults and Religions’ National Committee for Organising National and International Festivals said they had received a letter from Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) lawyer Khiev Sepphan dated last Friday that asked them to vacate their offices on Sisowath Quay by the end of the month.
“If you do not follow this notification, the lawyer will make a report to the CPP office to pursue further measures,” read the letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Post.
The letter instructed the officials to move to new offices at the General Inspectorate for the National Buddhist Education of Cambodia and hand over control of their current facilities to Choeung Sopheap, owner of Pheapimex and wife of CPP senator Lao Meng Khin.
Accounts of how the deal had been brokered differed among ministry officials.
One said that Minister of Cults and Religions Min Khin had sold the building to Choeung Sopheap last April, whereas another said the building was being exchanged for Pheapimex land near the Council of Ministers to be used by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
But regardless of how the deal was made, one official said, staff at the committee had been dealt with unfairly.
“We know that the current office has been sold to the private company, but we don’t understand why they used the CPP name to influence us,” he said, adding that the new proposed facilities are too small and lack meeting rooms.
“If they keep us working there without a proper location, that would be unacceptable,” he said.
Khiev Sepphan said he was simply acting on Min Khin’s behalf, declining to discuss specifics of the deal.
“I have informed His Excellency Min Khin that he should negotiate with those officials so that both sides can reach a solution,” Khiev Sepphan said.
Min Khin said Tuesday that he was too busy to comment, and Choeung Sopheap could not be reached for comment.
The Pheapimex transfer is just one in a series of deals over the past few years in which government facilities have been offered to private companies with ties to the CPP. Former Ministry of Tourism facilities on Monivong Boulevard and Phnom Penh Municipal Police headquarters on Street 51 are now controlled by the Phanimex development company, and land near the National Assembly that once held the Bassac Theatre is now controlled by the Royal Group, as is the former site of the National Radio headquarters in Daun Penh district.
Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Centre, said such transfers of state public property were illegal under the Kingdom’s 2001 Land Law, which states that state public properties may not be transferred to private hands unless they “lose their public-interest use”. This provision was reinforced in a 2005 sub-decree.
“To our knowledge, there’s no such law on transfer of this state public property to state private property,” Yeng Virak said, arguing that this process is instead carried out through methods that “supersede the law”, with sub-decrees issued to convert public property to private property after deals have already been made.
“Very often, the public does not know the justification for conversion,” Yeng Virak said. “Nobody knows.”
Sam Rainsy Party spokesman Yim Sovann said the companies benefiting from such transfers are not subject to a competitive, public bidding process that could ensure that they pay market prices for the property.
“The most powerful politicians are behind these companies. These companies can do whatever they want in Cambodia, especially they buy or swap or transfer the state property,” Yim Sovann said.
Sung Bonna, president of Bonna Realty Group, said property transfers must be conducted in a transparent manner, though he added that it was unsurprising that just a small group of companies appear to have benefited from such exchanges.
“So far, it’s not so many people that can afford to do this,” he said. “We do not say that it’s negative ... countries in development always have this kind of thing.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan referred questions to the Ministry of Land Management, where spokeswoman Nun Theary said she did not have information on the issue at hand.