Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Pa Socheatvong spoke with the Post's Nguon Sovan and Sebastian Strangio, answering criticisms of the municipality's lakeside plans.
How did City Hall make the decision to develop the lake?
Many [companies] hesitated to invest in the area since the project developers face risks, including the resettlement of the area's residents. Eventually, South Korea's Shukaku Inc. decided to invest in the area. Our first condition was that Shukaku had to be able to resettle residents and build them new houses in the same area as those people from Borei Keila. Most of the other companies didn't accept this condition because the resettlement and housing of 4,000 families would cost at least $50 million, in addition to another $50 million to pump out the lake water and fill it with sand.
Some critics have said that the filling of the lake will cause problems with flooding. What is your response to this criticism?
This is a remark of common people, not technicians, and the flooding in those areas is due to the lack of drainage systems. When the lake development occurs there will be no more flooding because we will develop proper drains. In addition, people have violated and possessed the lake since 1993 [and] now the lake is very polluted.
If we keep the lake undeveloped it will be like a disease bomb in the centre of the city.
What was the municipality's Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) not released publicly?
The EIA was conducted by the Ministry of Environment, who held meetings with local and international NGOs. It can't be said that we did not release the report; it's just that our release was narrow, and it might be that people were not interested at the time. People are always interested in what is happening, and... once we started the pumping of the sand, they got surprised and wanted to know.
If we do not develop [the lake], the problem of anarchy will escalate and the authorities will find it difficult to control those in the area. If we keep the lake undeveloped, it will be like a disease bomb in the centre of the city. It also faces great risk from fire because there are few access roads. The area has always been an unsafe spot, attracting gangsters, prostitutes, terrorists, Cambodian freedom fighters, murderers, drugs.
Why did the Council of Ministers issue a sub-decree reclassifying the lake as state private land?
At this point, I want to clarify why it was done after the [February 2007] contract. We have documents to prove that the area is in fact state private land, which City Hall said has been the legal status since the 1980s. We had used it as a tourism attraction already, prior to the Paris Peace Accords, so we thought it was unnecessary to privatise it again since it already belonged to the state. So we signed the contract, and so as not to be in doubt, we decided to ask the government to do things perfectly and to appease all concern.
Many NGOs claim Boeung Kak residents are able to claim ownership of their and under the 2001 Land Law. Is this the case? If so, why not?
To be a legal owner of the land, there are five criteria, and I raised two points with the lakeside residents: that they must obtain the land honestly, and that the land must be recognised by the authorities. Do they qualify? The authorities have not permitted them to live there, [and] some [have] said that if City Hall knew that they were living illegally on the lake, why weren't they driven away at the beginning?
But this is an example of our leniency and understanding.
Some of the Boeung Kak residents are claiming they should be given market price compensation for their properties. Is this "fair and just"?
It is difficult to use the words "fair and just" in relation to such a solution. Firstly, this is not a problem of buying and selling, because we know that the area belongs to the state, so what do they have to sell? If they sell the land, they are selling the state's land and that would be illegal. Secondly, we do not take the size of their land or houses as the basis for the resolution. It is our obligation to enhance the living rights of the people - we treat each family fairly and equally by providing them with a shelter package.
Was there an open and transparent bidding process for the Boeung Kak contract?
This point is always used by the opposition parties to criticise us, but we agree in this case that we haven't held a bidding process. We have two methods of bidding, but we can only do this if there are at least two companies involved. For Boeung Kak, however, development companies were hesitant to become involved, and only Shukaku Inc. dared to invest capital to build houses for lakeside residents.