Local observers are raising questions about the legality of a land concession granted to the wife of ruling party senator Ly Yong Phat in Kampong Speu province, which a company representative has acknowledged now exceeds the 10,000-hectare limit in the Kingdom’s Land Law.
A sub-decree signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen in March and obtained by The Post last week increases a 9,053-hectare concession granted to Kim Heang, the wife of Ly Yong Phat, by an additional 4,700 hectares. The new sub-decree could potentially push Kim Heang’s concession to 13,753 hectares in total, despite a provision in the 2001 Land Law limiting such plots to 10,000 hectares.
Chheng Kimsruon, a representative of Kampong Speu Sugar Company, said yesterday that the concession was appropriate in spite of the legal uncertainty.“We are a real company working on the land to plant sugarcane, not like other companies who receive land without developing anything,” she said. “It’s fine for government to give us more than what the law says – it’s just a little surplus.”
But Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Centre, said the move was significantly more controversial. “It’s in violation of the law, the law on the limit of 10,000” hectares, he said. “It’s not, ‘Oh, you’re doing well already so you should get more.’”
Matthew Rendall, a partner at the local law firm Sciaroni and Associates who advised the government on the drafting the Land Law, said it would be a separate concession agreement, and not last month’s sub-decree, that determines the precise size of the plot. Such a concession agreement ultimately extending beyond 10,000 hectares, he said, would be “unusual”.
“The idea of having one concession in one agreement that goes over 10,000 hectares, that would be unusual,” Rendall said. “I’ve never seen that before.”
Officials at the Council of Ministers could not be reached for comment. Kret Visal Langkear, chief of the minister’s cabinet at the Ministry of Land Management, said he was unfamiliar with the Kampong Speu Sugar case, but that such concessions were typically limited in size by the Land Law.“I have often seen companies getting around 9,000 hectares for a land concession, but I rarely see a company getting more than 10,000,” he said.
Already, rights groups say, many developers skirt the concession limit by having family members or business associates legally obtain separate concessions that are connected with their own.
Kim Heang’s Kampong Speu concession, for example, sits adjacent to an 8,343-hectare land concession granted to Ly Yong Phat’s Phnom Penh Sugar Company. Such ambiguities leave the concession system open to manipulation, said Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for the local rights group Licadho.“We are concerned that this new land concession will produce new problems and affect local citizens, because the problems caused by the old concessions have not been resolved yet,” he said.
More than 2,000 families in Kampong Speu’s Thpong district have been locked for months in a dispute with Ly Yong Phat over concerns that his Phnom Penh Sugar concession will force them off their land. Last year, a group of villagers torched a makeshift building belonging to the company to protest against the alleged encroachment on their land, and more than a dozen villagers have been summoned for questioning by the Kampong Speu provincial court in connection with the case. Particularly in view of this ongoing conflict, Yeng Virak said, a new concession for Ly Yong Phat or his family members may be ill-advised. “It’s surprising that in the midst of the problems with the land in Kampong Speu ... you now hear that he got more land granted,” Yeng Virak said.