The government will “take back” land on roughly 30 islands from private companies that have not made progress on planned developments, Prime Minister Hun Sen said in a speech on Monday that also targeted land-grabbing villagers and idle provincial governors.
Speaking at the inauguration of the Royal Sands hotel on Koh Rong, the premier directed the Council for the Development of Cambodia to start the land reclamation with Koh Tonsay, or Rabbit Island.
“It is still Koh Tonsay. Nothing has been completed,” Hun Sen said. “Take it all back, and the deposit money will not be returned.”
“We need to take them back because they have not developed anything,” he added.
Aggressive island development plans have worried rights groups and conservationists in Cambodia for years.
According to documents compiled by Adhoc, more than 180,000 hectares of land on 28 of Cambodia’s 64 islands were reclassified as state private property for companies seeking land concessions between 2008 and 2010. The islands in question included Koh Tonsay, Koh Russey, Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem, with most of the projects overseen by the Council for the Development of Cambodia.
Cheang Sam Um, a manager at a small resort on Koh Tonsay, said several companies owned by tycoons Try Pheap and Wing Hour had started construction on the opposite side of the island several years ago but had since abandoned it.
Sam Um raised concerns that future development could result in the eviction of villagers who had occupied the land for years.
“I want it to stay the same here,” he said. “I do not want it to be sold.”
On Koh Rong, rapid development has already led to land disputes with more than 100 families. In his speech, however, Hun Sen raised suspicions that government officials and wealthy investors were paying villagers to grab land.
“Honestly, before 2008, how many people were there?” he asked. “They use the name of villagers living on Koh Rong, but they live in Phnom Penh and other places and they just invest through this.”
The prime minister also blamed unidentified officials and provincial governors for sending disputes to him to solve and being too lax on illegal logging on the islands, threatening to fire officials who punt problems to him.
“[The law] should not be implemented based on my orders,” Hun Sen said. “Otherwise, everything will be waiting on an order from the prime minister. You became ministers and provincial governors for what?”
Chap Sotheary, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said the group has received at least 30 complaints from villagers on Koh Rong over the last two years.
“Officials from multiple institutions have land in the area,” she said. “Sometimes, there is the systemic collusion as well. Public officials usually have more chance to get the land than the normal people. Normal villagers are afraid of the law, so they rarely dare to,” she said.
Deputy Provincial Governor Chhin Seng Nguon refused to comment beyond insisting that his administration regularly cracks down on illegal logging.
Thida Ann, director of real estate firm CBRE Cambodia, said she is in favour of finding “real investors to develop the island to bring Cambodia to the world”.
“Some people just want to take benefits from concession land . . . They just want to reinvest or transfer to other investors for the appreciation,” she said.
But Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, the founder of the local environmental movement Mother Nature, said he fears that environmental degradation awaits the islands.
“Either that, or they are kept as private fiefdoms for the benefit of the super rich and Cambodia’s elite, as we are already seeing with some of the smaller islands off Sihanoukville,” he said in a message.