Several plots of public land in Phnom Penh only recently privatised by the government already have commercial businesses on them – some for years – contradicting multiple Cambodian laws and sub-decrees, legal experts said.
One of the plots – a 1,950-square-metre tract that once housed the Tuol Kork District Hall – is currently occupied by a heavy machinery dealership.
A 1,400-square-metre plot that used to be the old Daun Penh District Hall now houses a Giant Ibis bus station.
Another 860-square-metre plot near Monivong Boulevard is home to a Vietnamese bank – and has been for several years, according to a security guard who declined to give his name.
What’s more, one of the largest pieces of land – a 15,000-square-metre parcel housing a garment factory on National Road 5 – is now the site of a protest staged by workers who say the factory shut down suddenly without paying salaries or severance.
The factory has operated on the plot since at least 2006, workers say. The parcel of land was only converted to “state- private” land in November.
The other plots were only converted in April.
In theory, public land is not supposed to be leased or sold to private investors until it goes through a lengthy procedure – including a transparent bidding and consultation process to convert it from “state public” to “state private” land, land rights experts say.
But Vann Sophath, who oversees land reform issues for CCHR, said officials often flout the law.
“It is complicated in Cambodia,” he said. “Even though we have a law to clarify, it depends on the decision of the government.”
The result is that government officials are often able to use the country’s sometimes confusing laws to alternately evict long-time residents from valuable land while gifting it to private investors, as happened in the infamous Borei Keila and Boeung Kak disputes, Sophath said.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan, however, defended the decision-making process of the interministerial committee that makes land conversion decisions, which includes both the Ministry of Land Management and the Ministry of Economy and Finance.
While Siphan confirmed that state property must be converted from public to private before it can be sold or leased to investors, he said he was sceptical of any reports that commercial properties are already using state-public land.
“They cannot do it backwards,” Siphan said. “They are not stupid. They have lawyers . . . The Phnom Penh government is very careful with that issue because of corruption.”
When asked why a number of plots of recently-converted land had already been occupied by private companies, Siphan directed further questions to the Ministry of Economy and Finance.
However, ministry spokesman Ros Phirun said he was unsure of the land reclassification process, and the ministry’s State Property Department head, Neth Mony, could not be reached.
Phnom Penh Land Management Department Director Sarin Vanna, meanwhile, maintained that the issue was beyond the scope of his office.
“When you ask me, you need to understand the reclassification is outlined by sub-decree,” Vanna said. “It is not in the competency of the Land Management Department . . . You are asking the wrong authority.”
Human rights advocates have complained for years that many government land-swapping deals appear to violate Cambodian law and blur the distinction between public and private property. In addition, the government rarely releases information about the sale price of the land.
Soeung Saran, executive director of housing rights NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, called on the government to hold transparent discussions “well in advance” of any decision to reclassify land.
“This is an issue that needs to be resolved and made clear to ensure the rights of the public are upheld,” Saran said.
The garment workers now staking out Dai Young factory say they are unsure what is going to happen to their former workplace, which closed abruptly last month.
Bun Nak, a 39-year-old cutting machine worker at the factory, said the closure left nearly 500 workers without their monthly wages of $200 to $400, as well as without their severance.
In the meantime, workers have witnessed men coming to take soil samples of the land, leading them to believe the property – which abuts the river – will be developed into apartments or boreys, a sort of gated community.
“We have heard that the state wants to take the land to give to someone else,” Nak said.
However, who gets what or how they get it is of little importance to him, Nak added.
“What’s important is the workers’ wages.”