As staff at the Ministry of Environment prepped themselves for an end-of-year move from their office situated near Independence Monument to distant quarters in the city’s Meanchey district, Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday offered a renewed public denouncement of similar government land swaps-at least his second such statement in three years. Stressing a desire to mix development with conservation, Mr. Hun Sen harshly rebuked those who had requested permission to swap government buildings saying: “some places need conservation, we have to conserve.”
But to many, the prime minister’s words likely rang hollow. In the last decade, Cambodia has seen a proliferation of swaps of government buildings, including ministries, schools, and departments.
In the most sweeping case, the entire provincial government of Siem Reap was in 2010 relocated from downtown Siem Reap city to a desolate 42-hecatre site in Ampil commune-some 16 km away from the city center. In the last three years, at least half-a-dozen ministries, schools, courts, and military buildings have moved from offices located on prime Phnom Penh real estate to locations on the outskirts of the city.
The swaps with private businesses represent a boon for those lucky enough to secure once state-owned land: The companies–frequently with close ties to government officials–get a prime parcel of real estate in exchange for constructing purpose-built offices on the outskirts, where real estate fetches a fraction of the price.
Mr. Hun Sen yesterday focused on a handful of government buildings whose historical and architectural value, he said, ought to be preserved.
“AKP, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, the Ministry of Economy and Finance, the Ministry of Defense, the National Bank, the Tax Department, the National Library and Sisowath High School need to be conserved,” he said, adding that companies frequently appear with offers to swap land occupied by the AKP news agency.
Despite the admonition, which singled out both the Minister of Information and Minister of Culture, Mr. Hun Sen gave a rare insight into his party’s line concerning government land swaps.
“Bringing a horse to exchange for a horse is good policy for the government,” he said. “At the end, a horse is still a horse. We did not lose anything.”
Whether that is the case is up for debate.
Staff at the Ministry of Environment speaking on the condition of anonymity yesterday bemoaned the swap of their workplace, saying the new offices were far out of town and troublesome to travel to. They also wondered why the swap wouldn’t result in bonuses paid directly to them to cover the cost of motorbikes and gasoline, given the sums of money being earned in the trade of the state-owned land.
Though the exact value of the swap is not known, land on Sihanouk Boulevard, where the ministry is located, is valued at between $4,000 and $5,000 per square meter. Measuring 2,400 square meters, the ministry plot would be worth in the region of $9.6 to $12 million. The size of the ministry’s new land is reported to measure more than 9,000 square meters. Though an exact price per meter was not readily available yesterday, land in the Meanchey area where the new ministry is being built ranges in price from $300 per square meter to $1,500 per meter.
General Director for the Ministry of Environment Sem Saroeun defended the swap and the construction of a new ministry building, which began in mid-2011 and is due for completion by December 2012, by highlighting problems with the ministry’s current premises.
“The building is a narrow place with no car parking. We park on the street every day and His Excellency Kep Chuktema is upset with our staff’s car parking,” he said.
“We will get four new buildings, four times the size of our older Ministry of Environment site on Sihanouk boulevard,” said Mr. Saroeun. “It’s a good location and close to Phnom Penh city, just one kilometer past the Monivong bridge.
Ratana, a local construction company, has the contract to construct the new Environment Ministry building, and according to company representatives, the deal was brokered by Ouk Maly, wife of four-star General Ma Chhoeun, head of the police training academy, according to company representatives.
“This swap was not with my company, but we were hired to build the new Environment Ministry of National Road One…by Chum Teav Ouk Maly,” said Khlaing Sokhoeun, Ratana’s construction manager.
An assistant for Ms. Maly, Choeung But, said yesterday he didn’t have any information on the swap.
(Additional reporting by Abby Seiff)