poipet, Banteay Meanchey – Almost 300 families have been forced off land here in recent months, as land prices have skyrocketed due to a new border crossing, development, and the issuance of five licenses for luxury casinos.
Those now controlling the land include well-connected casino owners, a company receiving assistance from the brother of co-Defense Minister Tea Banh, and soldiers acting on behalf of the head of the Military Police for Battambang province, Por Vannak.
Representatives of those alleged to have taken property claim they are rightful owners, and that their land was unjustly occupied by squatters. Some have court decisions to back up their claims, while others have worked out compensation packages with villagers through the mediation of provincial officials.
But many of the families facing eviction claim they are unjustly losing their land. And some have documents they say prove their ownership.
The disputes here may be only the beginning. Speculators have been eyeing lands adjacent to existing construction sites, concerned local residents say. In addition, local officials say they may have to evict as many as 5,000 families to build a sewage system and infrastructure that will facilitate increased trade at the 2-year-old border crossing.
‘‘Just last year, this was all jungle and nobody wanted it,’’ complained Mao Samy, who gestured to a spot where two soldiers recently deposited her and the couch she was sitting on prior to knocking down her stone dwelling with a bulldozer.
The problems in Poipet provide an extreme example of the turmoil caused by Cambodia’s confused land laws, and the rush among speculators to gain possession of former battlefields that are expected to become lucrative as the country develops.
Some of the powerful who claim to be land owners have legitimate gripes: millions of people in the countryside have lost homes and fled because of fighting this decade. Upon returning, many have occupied whatever lands they could find—they have had to in order to survive, but NGOs and some critics note that if their claims do get to court, the powerful almost always prevail in Cambodia’s judicial system.
In Poipet, the turmoil appears to be largely due to decisions made by authorities based in Phnom Penh. Though located about as far away from the capital as possible for a Cambodian town, Poipet has come under increasing central government control since the opening of a international border crossing in February 1998.
Rumors have also swept through this town that powerful government officials are invested in some Poipet casino developments—an assertion Banteay Meanchey’s provincial governor confirmed, while declining to name names.
Several owners of planned or already built casinos deny they have government officials as partners.
Even so, the lucrative casino licenses didn’t go to just anybody.
All five were issued to powerful, well-connected businessmen with clout in the capital. They were issued by the government, without consulting provincial or local authorities, the local authorities say. Local police officials are not even allowed to enter the casino gates, which are policed by Ministry of Interior staff, provincial authorities say.
Underlying the influence of Phnom Penh here, one of the casino openings was attended by National Police Director General Hok Lundy and several ministers, according to Mao Chandara, chief of staff for the national police. But he said Hok Lundy is not an investor.
“The reason Hok Lundy attended was just as a guest, and because he is the person in charge of casino affairs,” he said. “So this is normal.”
Any tax revenue from the border development sites, where the casinos are being built, is sent to Phnom Penh, local authorities say. And in the areas where land is in dispute, it is the military, not local police, who appear to have enforced court decisions.
In one development site next to the border, the government simply declared the land a “military development zone,” and occupied it, leaving it to provincial authorities to work out a compensation package for displaced families.
The administrative arrangement is unique to Poipet and another new international border crossing into Vietnam in Svay Rieng province, Ministry of Interior officials say. And it has frustrated some provincial authorities, who appear unequipped and underfunded to deal with the massive social problems created by the rapid pace of development here.
“All the construction in this area is out of provincial jurisdiction. It is all decided on the ministry level by the government itself,” Thach Khorn, governor of Banteay Meanchey province, said referring to building in the casino zone next to the border. Asked if the development would help Poipet, he responded, “I am not optimistic but I don’t want to say anything.”
While development decisions have come from Phnom Penh, it has been left to local authorities to try and deal with any problems that have arisen as a result.
That is not an uncommon scenario in Cambodia today, some experts say. Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development, noted that the country is still evolving from a state-controlled central economy of the communist era to a free market economy. Thus it is not uncommon for officials in Phnom Penh to make decisions for distant provinces that have far-reaching, and difficult consequences for authorities there.
“It is a long transition and there is still a lot to work out,” she said. “There is still confusion in almost everything between central and provincial authorities about rules and responsibility. There is no coordination, except for a few exceptions.”
The problem, she argued is not so much that the central government is making decisions that perhaps would be better left to provincial authorities, but rather that there is no consistent policy and little dialogue.
As a result, often, “there is no sharing of ideas, and no transparency,” she said. And solutions to complex problems and ways to address needs in places like Poipet are delayed, she added.
In Poipet, the lack of coordination and the land problems
are amplified by a transient population that is growing exponentially, and a widespread belief in the area that prosperity will soon visit this impoverished, muddy town that still has no sewage system. Thousands have flocked here in recent months, squatting on land in all areas.
“The main problem we have faced in Poipet is land disputes,” said Chhoeung Sokhom, deputy police chief for justice affairs for Banteay Meanchey province. “The land over there has become very lucrative and expensive and that’s why people fight each other to get their land. We’ve had problems between businessmen and investors and farmers, and overlapping licenses. We just follow the courts.”
Military Police Commander “reclaims” Land
Mao Samy, 48, was cooking breakfast for her seven children when men with rifles, hammers, and a bulldozer showed up at her door last month.
By lunch time, her stone house of six years had been reduced to a pile of rubble. Seventy others burned or were ripped apart in her neighborhood October 13, 14 and 15th — apparently on a court order issued on behalf of property’s legally-validated owner: The head of Battambang military police, Por Vannak, according to villagers and NGOs in the area.
‘‘They have destroyed everything, they even threw away our rice,’’ Mao Samy complained, claiming along with several other neighbors that soldiers returned at night, threatened to rape a 12-year-old girl, to shoot an old lady, and handcuffed two former residents. Mao Samy produced a document signed by Poipet officials she claimed gives her title to the land.
According to Bernie O’Neill, coordinator for ZOA Refugee Care in Poipet, villagers were planning to appeal the court decision to a higher court when soldiers showed up. They knocked down houses, carted off the materials and contents in trucks, and “used unnecessary violence against women and children,” O’Neill writes in a letter appealing to human rights groups for help.
But Por Vannak strongly disputed their accounts. He said he acquired the land in 1993, and that villagers took advantage of political turbulence in the area that followed to occupy it.
“Regarding that land, it belongs absolutely to me and we have hard evidence to certify those plots of land are mine and the land titles were also recognized by the provincial authorities and central government and listed in the geographic book since 1993,” Por Vannak said.
“They just arrived and occupied my land during the time of political turbulence. During that time I couldn’t ban them from entering or we would have faced armed confrontation with the people because some of them had family members who were also soldiers.”
Of the titles distributed to the villagers by the commune chief, he said: “those land titles are absolutely illegal and the commune chief is not allowed to issue such titles, he did not check existing geographic books.”
He added that he had “heard” that some people had been forced off the land “on the order of the court.” But he said he was in Phnom Penh at the time.
Sao Sokha, national military police commander, said he was aware of the problem. But he too defended Por Vannak’s right to the land, noting the court decision. He also defended the eviction of the villagers, noting that soldiers were simply enforcing a court order. And he said he didn’t believe allegations that soldiers threatened to rape villagers, implying that politicians were behind the problem.
Next to pile of rubble that used to be Mao Samy’s home are plots occupied by 31 families expecting a similar fate. Families there say they have been told the head of local RCAF division 12 now owns the rights to their land, and have been invited to appear in a Sisophon court. The case will be heard early next month, according to the families and NGO workers in the area.
Rumors have circulated through the area that land speculators are hoping to capitalize on an expected need for storehouses and other facilities brought about by the opening of the border crossing. Huge trucks rumble down the roads in convoys ferrying good from Thailand into Cambodia, while primitive storehouses piled high with rusty scrap metal to be exported to Thailand wait in lots along Rt. 5.
But Por Vannak says he has no immediate plans to sell. Instead, he will erect a fence and farm the land, he said.
Even more lucrative land has been the subject of dispute on a strip adjacent to the Thai border. And a development area there has been slowly spreading sideways, threatening to engulf entire neighborhoods.
Border Dev. Zone: Track Plans, Casinos Displace Hundreds
The government has issued five licenses for casinos on this strip of land, according to provincial officials. A spokesman for the Council of Ministers, which is said to have issued the licenses, said he had no knowledge of the casino licenses and declined to comment.
Two casinos have already opened. Shuttle buses with tinted windows regularly ferry Thai gamblers across the border to the Holiday and Golden Crown Casinos, passing mud-caked Cambodian laborers pushing carts piled high with goods the other way.
The five owners are powerful and well-connected. But they deny their clout helped gain them access to land, and one even denied that he had been issued a casino license.
The first casino to go up was Holiday Casino, owned by the same group that operated Phnom Penh’s Holiday Casino for more than five years. It closed earlier this year. The second casino, Golden Crown, opened recently. It is owned by Anco Brothers, a company owned by Phu Kok An — known as one of the richest men in Phnom Penh.
Kim Ledaro, director of Golden Crown Casino, said he has had no land problems.
“We don’t have any land problems with villagers because we paid fair compensation,” he said, noting that once fully operational the hotel will employ 1,000 local Khmer workers. The casino, which is already opened, hosts an average of 150 Thais a day, and the number is growing, he said.
Local officials and casino managers say licenses have been issued for three other casinos: one to Kith Meng, director of the Royal Group of Companies and part owner of Mobitel, one to Ly Yung Phat, a Koh Kong businessman.
Kith Meng denied he had been issued a casino license, but acknowledged that his company owned land in the area and was considering development projects.
The third casino license has been issued to a group of investors who have been assisted by Tea Soth, the brother of Co-Minister of Defense Tea Banh. Tea Soth is himself a high-ranking official in the Ministry of Defense, holding the position of deputy director general of materials and technical services department .
Tea Soth declared the land a “military area for development” on behalf of the company, which is owned by a businessman named Te Taing Por, according to Sor Chamrong, chief of O’Crov District. Tea Soth has been negotiating with local officials on behalf of the company to resolve land disputes, several officials said. Thach Khorn, governor of Banteay Meanchey Province, and an executive at one local casino also named Tea Soth as heavily involved in the development, and the land it will be built upon.
As a result of construction planned by Te Taing Por’s company — TP Lien Thong International Investment Group Co — more than 200 families have apparently lost their land.
Te Taing Por declined to explain his company’s relationship with Tea Soth, saying only: “Don’t write about him. He is just cooperating and working with me.”
Tea Soth could not be reached for comment. Co-Minister of Defense Tea Banh also was unavailable for comment.
The families who lost their land complained to the Ministry of Interior in April, Thach Khorn said. The Ministry of Interior sent the complaints back to the provincial level and asked them to solve the problem, according to Thach Khorn.
Thach Khorn determined that only 70 of the families in question had rights to the land, of those families 34 have agreed to a compensation package equivalent to roughly 2,000 Thai Baht (About $52) and a plot of land in another part of town. The rest remain, soon to be evicted, he said.
‘‘In principle, if anyone is living there wants to live there, they cannot get a license because under Cambodia law, you must be 300 meters from the border,’’ he explained. The companies are allowed to operate within that zone because ‘‘they got a license from the government, (the central government) made a decision on that.’’
Efforts to visit and interview families on the disputed casino land in Poipet were unsuccessful, as soldiers with semi-automatic weapons blocked the way.
Asked about the disputes, Te Taing Por, chairman of LTP Lien Thong International Investment Group Co., would say only that “the problems have been solved already.” He declined to comment further.
He confirmed that his company has been granted a casino license. He claimed they plan to invest about $200 million to develop 100-square hectares of land. The project will include a casino, a race track, a golf course, and a asphalt road running from Poipet to Angkor Wat, in Siem Riep.
The province of Banteay Meanchey has no jurisdiction over the casinos, Thach Khorn said. And the local and provincial government receive no tax revenues from the casinos. Security is provided by the Ministry of Interior, and local police forces are not allowed to enter the casino gates.
‘‘I’m not sure what happened, but around this area the Council of Ministers agreed to allow private companies to build,’’ he said.
Local and provincial officials say the land disputes are the inevitable outcome of the areas’ explosive growth.
‘‘We don’t have enough land so of course we have problems,’’ Thach Khorn said. ‘‘People are farming on other people’s land.’’
Sor Chamrong, chief of O’Crov District, said he is currently handling more than 30 land dispute cases — ranging in size from affecting two to 10 families. But things are likely to get much worse. Land prices in some areas have risen by 500 percent because of speculation, he added.
In the coming months, as many as 5,000 houses may have to be destroyed, he said.
‘‘If villagers live along the roads, they may have to move,’’ he said. ‘‘Especially on the railway… There has been a lot of building, on roads, illegal houses. We have to make regulations. We need experts to make a master plan.”
Villagers living on land bordering one of the Holiday casino say they have been approached in recent days and asked to sell for low prices. They fear they too may soon be forced to relocate.
‘‘The casino wants to buy our land at cheap prices, but the villagers do not agree,’’ said one woman, who runs an outdoor store a few feet away from the fence that indicates the end of Holiday Casino’s construction—located in the development area next to the border, across the street from the Golden Crown Casino.
She, and several others gathered around the stand, said land speculators approached her and her neighbors recently, and that they were told 200 or 300 families would be moved.
‘‘We are worried about this because we don’t have land titles at all. I have been here for nine years.’’