Contractor Says Senior Official Approved Siem Reap Land Swap

The head of a construction firm that was involved in a massive land swap with Siem Reap’s provincial government in 2010 defended the deal on Friday saying orders for the move of government offices and civil servants—which is now being reversed—came directly from the national government.

Siem Reap provincial officials last week blamed former provincial governor Sou Phirin for the deal which saw 26 government departments and their staff of more than 1,000 moved to a remote area some 16 km outside Siem Reap City.

The remoteness of the site had caused logistical problems for Siem Reap’s administration and angered civil servants whose travel time to and from work, as well as the extra cost of petrol, had bitten into their modest government salaries.

Siem Reap chief of police Mok Sam Oun on Thursday accused Mr. Phirin of hatching the now-failed move for personal profit.

Mr. Sam Oun and hundreds of his colleagues in the Siem Reap administration are now packing up their offices and moving back to the city following a return order issued by Prime Minister Hun Sen on August 9.

The financial losses from the aborted move are not yet known.

However, Lun Sothy, director of J&R Import, Export and Construction Company, on Friday defended Mr. Phirin’s decision to swap valuable government land and buildings in Siem Reap City for the remotely located site, saying that the order came from the central government.

“The governor is not the one who made the decision. It is higher,” Mr. Sothy said by telephone.

“[Sou Phirin] got a new place [to move the provincial and municipal offices] and he just did his work, that’s all,” Mr. Sothy said, declining to name the specific government official who decided on the swap plan.

Mr. Phirin could not be reached for comment.

Siem Reap’s provincial government was moved from the city center to a 42-hectare site in rural Ampil commune in March 2010 after J&R was awarded a contract to build some 60 new office buildings there. The swap deal allowed J&R to take control of a number of centrally located provincial government buildings in prime locations in Siem Reap, including those along the city’s sought-after riverfront.

J&R’s Mr. Sothy said on Friday that his company had already sold all the government land and offices for cash, which he then used to construct the buildings in Ampil.

“We got the land, and it was mainly the payment we received for building the new buildings. We sold that and to get money to build the new ones,” Mr. Sothy said, declining to say how much profit he made from the deal.

“I don’t think it’s any of your business,” Mr. Sothy said.

Mr. Sothy also declined to say when and to whom Siem Reap’s former government land and offices were sold. He also could not explain why his firm was awarded the extensive land swap contract without a competitive bid process.

Several provincial officials on Thursday said that their former offices still remain abandoned since the property swap with J&R in 2010.

Mr. Hun Sen—in the August 9 letter—ordered Siem Reap’s municipal and pro­vincial officials to move back into the city center and switch buildings with the Apsara Authority, which manages the Angkor Archaeological Park. In turn, more than 500 Apsara Authority officials have been ordered to vacate their Siem Reap premises and move to the Ampil site now being abandoned by provincial and municipal officials.

Faced with the impending move, employees at the Apsara Authority have already demanded compensation for having to move to the remote site.

Im Sokrithy, the officer in charge of the communications department at Apsara, said the authority has agreed to provide 30 liters of petrol a month to each employee that will move to the new site, as well as a daily meal stipend of 15,000 riel, or about $3.75.

“We settled the issue and the staff accepted the offer,” Mr. Sokrithy said, adding that 533 staff members out of the almost 3,000-strong authority will be moving out to Ampil.

At current prices, the gasoline stipend for the 533 staff will cost the Apsara Authority at least $20,000 per month and the daily food stipend will cost about $40,000 each month, for a combined total of about $720,000 per year.

“The extra benefits we offered to the 533 staff members will come from money from our main source of income, such as ticket sales,” Mr. Sokrithy said.

Phay Siphan, spokesman of the Council of Ministers, de­clined to comment on the Siem Reap land swap deal.

Spokesman for the opposition CNRP Yim Sovann blasted the secrecy and lack of transparency behind such land deals. He also said that in these deals, state land is typically exchanged for a mere 10 percent of the actual market value.

“They sold the middle of downtown land, and then they are moving back. Why didn’t they just keep the old one?” Mr. Sovann said. “They never do it in a transparent manner, they do not put these things on bidding like in other countries.”

Mr. Sovann said that a government land swap of the size in Siem Reap would require approval from the Council of Ministers.

“They shouldn’t blame only one man [the former Siem Reap governor], but they should blame everyone. It is the government itself,” he said.

© 2013, All rights reserved.