Chea Sophat stood on the gravel embankment of a road as he pointed to what was once his rice field, an unfenced, 4,000-square-metre waterlogged plot with a handful of buffaloes wallowing in the mud.
Across the Tonle Sap river, Phnom Penh was celebrating the festivities of the Water Festival – longboat races, music concerts, an appearance by the King – but on Chroy Changvar, 63-year-old Sophat was consumed by worry.
“The land was used for farming before the company filled it with sand. Now I cannot use it,” he said, pointing to mounds of sand scattered around his plot that have destroyed the land’s ability to drain.
Passing motorbikes and cars tossed up clouds of cement dust and sand on the nearby road being constructed for what has been dubbed the “City of the Future”.
Sophat’s land is in the process of being seized by the Phnom Penh Municipality to facilitate the development of the $1.6 billion Chroy Changvar satellite city. The 387-hectare development promises modern condominium and villa residences, a sports stadium, a business district and even a new bridge and rail system connecting it with the city.
The project extends north of the Chroy Changvar roundabout, and is nestled between National Road 6 and the Tonle Sap riverbank. However, as with many large development projects, a number of villages sit on the proposed site, and residents are now locked in a land dispute with City Hall. The dispute’s roots are more than 20 years old.
In 1994, the government banned the construction of homes on the land, with then-first prime minister Norodom Ranariddh officially designating the site for development two years later.
But during the 1998 election campaign, Prime Minister Hun Sen promised that landowners who had lived on the site for at least five years would not be evicted. He reiterated the promise in a 2002 speech intended to calm eviction fears at the time.
While some villagers – those living 100 metres or less from National Road 6 and the banks of the Tonle Sap – have reaped the benefits of this promise and have been excluded from the project site, Sophat and some 200 families residing within the development zone have not been so lucky.
“City Hall is like a parent to us villagers, but this parent does not care about its children,” Sophat said. “How can they force us to accept this when they are wrong?”
In September, City Hall issued villagers on the peninsula a final ultimatum: Either part with 90 percent of the land they now occupy, or accept $15 per square metre. OCIC, in its project prospectus aimed at would-be buyers, pegged the land price at an average of $600 per square metre.
Time is up
Months of meetings and negotiations have seen little progress towards an amicable compromise. And since a November 14 deadline to accept the offer passed, uncertainty has hung over residents of the peninsula.
When Sophat rides around the peninsula on his motorbike, he always keeps a bag bursting with documents at his side. Rifling through the documents for reporters, he removed land certificates issued by local authorities recognising the owners of the land and tax invoices.
“City Hall can try and take my land, but I have the documents to prove it is mine,” he said. “How can they give us a deadline?”Even during the series of meetings with City Hall to negotiate a solution, Sophat said they were always referred to as land owners.
“In letters to us, they call us land owners. They call us for meetings and refer to us as land owners,” he said. “If we are land owners, why are they taking our land?”
Nan Ony, resettlement and housing rights coordinator at NGO Forum, said the land dispute was unique to others in the city – including Boeung Kak and Borei Keila – because most villagers have successfully produced some form of official documentation to prove ownership.
“The people have different types of legal documents – land titles, tax invoices, family and residence books showing their address,” he said. “They have the same documents as other Phnom Penh residents.”
He said that as disbursement of land titles is often an expensive, arduous and drawn-out process, other forms of documentation certified by commune and district officials should not be cast so easily aside.
Additionally, he said, both OCIC and City Hall have acknowledged the presence of five “old villages” – North and South Damkor, Prey Leap, Kien Khleang and Kien Khleang 6A. But while some of the villagers living in those areas have seen their property spared, others have been left in the lurch.
“When you can recognise the village, why don’t you recognise the people living there? This is the real question,” Ony said. Speaking after the November 14 deadline passed, Ony said it was unlikely there would be violent evictions on the peninsula.
“We don’t want to see evictions. We have seen its bad consequences,” he said. “And [if it happens], it will only show that the government is not ready to learn from previous experience.
In the run-up to the deadline, City Hall spokesman Mean Chanyada consistently told villagers they would have to accept the proposed deal or, conversely, accept any actions taken by the local authorities – without elaborating on the threat.
Reached last week, Chanyada refused to comment on the matter.Chroy Changvar District Governor Khlaing Hout said the government had been reasonable and preserved the property of deserving villagers, calling those who continued to protest City Hall’s proposal “rich people”.
Refusing to acknowledge their land documents, Hout toed the government line, claiming that certain villagers had occupied the land only recently – some only after OCIC started filling it with sand.
“When the land was submerged with water, no one claimed it. But after it was filled and they saw [rising] land prices, they claimed it,” he said. Despite the ongoing tensions between City Hall and villagers, OCIC has continued to build the infrastructure needed to kick-start its project.
Barring a few skirmishes with villagers, some of whom banded together to block excavators from removing earth on their land, development activities on the peninsula have proceeded unabated. OCIC project manager Touch Samnang refused to comment on potential solutions and directed all inquiries about the dispute to City Hall.
“It is the duty of City Hall to deal with the people,” he said. “They are working for a solution and we are waiting to develop the land.” Samnang referred to the villagers in question as “outsiders”, claiming they had bought the land only to reap the benefit of land prices rising on the back of the development plans.
He added that those “really affected” by the project had already accepted a separate compensation package offered by OCIC – an apartment at Borei Roeung Reung on the peninsula and a stall at the local market.
“The outsiders want to keep negotiating,” he said. “But the really affected have taken compensation and are really happy with our development. ”Referring to this package, NGO Forum’s Ony said a number of villagers had refused to accept it because it did not account for the amount of land they owned and was a one-size-fits-all solution.
Two weeks since the end of the deadline, Chea Sophat yesterday said that there had been no recent communication with local authorities and that villagers were increasingly worried they wouldn’t be able to find a solution.
“I have not seen anything happen on the land yet – everything is still the same. We have not had any meeting with City Hall yet,” he said.
While all he expects is to be paid a fair price for his land, Sophat said he cannot but accept that it is slowly slipping from his grasp. “I saved all my money to buy the land and wanted to give it to my children,” he said. “But we now have to beg to keep our land safe.”