In the early evening drizzle last week, a group of children played a cheerful game of football on the large, sandy field next to Russian Boulevard near Boeng Kak lake. The children seemed unaware that the field they were playing on was once a government-owned lake.
They also seemed not to know that the field now belongs to Othsman Hassan, CPP National Assembly member and one of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s advisers—and that the area is scheduled to be developed into a major shopping destination with a five-star hotel, supermarket and large shopping center.
While the children might not have been aware of the impending development project, the residents of the nearby squatter village are aware.
“They can behead me, but I will not leave here,” said Phat Chhin, 58, who has lived on the land since 1979 and said the former governor of Phnom Penh issued him a land title. “I am not living on a garden or a street or some company’s land.”
Phat Chhin is one of about 450 current residents who have lived on the land for more than 20 years. Nevertheless, he fears that he and the hundreds of residents living in the squatter village may have to move once the area is developed.
Earlier this month, 450 families wrote and signed with thumbprints a letter to Hun Sen accusing Othsman Hassan’s company, Hassan Cambodia Development, of grabbing their land.
“This company’s act affects the villagers’ benefits,” the letter states. “The villagers are especially afraid that their houses will be set on fire or they will be forcibly removed by the authorities.”
The letter also was delivered earlier this month to the Council of Ministers. Chea Sophoan, secretary of state for the Council of Ministers, wrote a letter to Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara asking for resolution in the land dispute, Chea Sophoan’s letter stated.
Othsman Hassan, meanwhile, confirmed that Hassan Cambodia Development signed a 70-year lease with the government allowing it to rent 10 hectares of land.
He denied that any officials from his company threatened to burn down the houses in the village, asking, “How could they accuse the company if someone else starts the fire? If they have evidence, they can bring it to the law.”
He said at least 200 villagers agreed to leave the area after being offered $400 each and building materials for new houses. But some of the villagers say that’s not enough.
“How could we survive with that small amount of money?” asked Seng Kim Keng, 38, who owns and runs a small grocery store on the land. “My land costs much more than that, so I will not leave.”
But the strongest protests come from Phat Chhin, who recalled a statement by Hun Sen that anyone who lives on state land for more than five years becomes its legal owner. “I have lived here much longer than five years,” he said. “It is not legal for them to ask me to move.”