Controversial City Land Swaps Finished, Governor Announces

Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong said on Wednesday that so long as he was in office there would be no more swapping of city property with private companies, a long-running government practice shrouded in secrecy and dogged by allegations of corruption.

The typical swap sees the government give a piece of prime real estate to a private firm that promises in return to build a replacement facility on far less valuable—and much more remote—land.

The governor chaired a meeting at City Hall on Tuesday to discuss the practice with municipal officials, announcing that he would begin to create an inventory of all city property. In a telephone interview on Wednesday, Mr. Socheatvong said that land swapping had impractically forced some of the municipal government’s offices to relocate to the city’s far outskirts.

“We must end the swaps,” said Mr. Socheatvong, who took over as governor from Kep Chuktema in May 2013.

“We want to end the problems of the previous time,” he said, in an apparent reference to his predecessor. “Some offices had a comfortable place to work, but they were moved to the outskirts of the city, so it makes things more difficult.”

Mr. Chuktema, who was Phnom Penh’s governor for 10 years and now serves as a lawmaker for the ruling CPP, could not be reached.

State land swaps are hardly exclusive to City Hall, sometimes involving whole national government ministries. But the practice is shrouded in secrecy, often with little to no available information about which companies take over a prime location, how much they pay to do so, and what the motivation is for the swap.

The lack of transparency has led to accusations that the practice is primarily a moneymaking scheme for government officials who pocket the sales profits.

Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for rights group Licadho, welcomed the governor’s decision and advised the government to renovate rather than sell old buildings.

“I think that land swaps are not good because the benefits from the swaps mostly go into people’s pockets instead of to the state,” he said.

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