Ponhea Leu district, Kandal province – For 30-year-old villager Kong Peou, $110 was not an amount to be sniffed at. So when he was offered that sum in return for agreeing to allow a businessman to develop more than 1,500 hectares of land near his farm last year, he was not deterred by the fact that the site was not his to sell.
“It’s money. It’s not bad, I had to accept it,” Kong Peou said in a recent interview in Kampong Os commune.
“I wasn’t selling my own land, but state-owned flooded forest,” he explained.
Kong Peou, who received the money in two installments, of $35 in June and of $75 in September, was not alone in accepting cash from land developer Dy Po.
A total of 1,327 families received $110 each for signing away claim to the 1,690 hectares of state-owned land known as Fishing Lot 16, said Dy Po’s lawyer, Sao Vita. The total amounted paid to the villagers was $145,970.
Sao Vita says the transaction was a popular one and that his client now wants to develop the area, which only floods in the rainy season and is forested land in the dry season.
But the case has been generating an increasing level of controversy, and prompted calls of intervention from the Ministry of Environment and even Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“It is an illegal encroachment on state property,” opposition lawmaker Son Chhay said during a Jan 31 visit to the site. “This is not a common issue,” he added. “It affects the environment and national fisheries.”
Shortly before he paid the villagers, Dy Po sent a bulldozer on June 16 to build a raised pathway through the fishing lot, Kampong Os first deputy commune chief Tim Thon recalled. But district authorities confiscated the bulldozer, he said.
About one month later, Dy Po went in person to hand out cash to the villagers, in return for them thumbprinting documents with ink saying they supported his development project, Tim Thon said.
The land the villagers did not own but thumbprinted away was allocated for their use as a state-owned fishing lot by Prime Minister Hun Sen in a 2001 sub-decree, officials said.
The lot had been used by the villagers for fishing in the rainy season and for growing rice in the dry season, said District Governor Tep Sothy.
Tep Sothy and Tim Thon said they were unsure what Dy Po plans to do with the land, while Dy Po and his lawyer declined to discuss the topic.
Dy Po has blamed jealous business rivals for stoking criticism of his secret project, which he says will benefit the local community.
Kann Phalla, chief of Kampong Os village, said Dy Po is planning to build a road, school and reservoir. He said he would not allow him to develop the land unless he has government permission and makes his plans public, but said he believes the tycoon has the community’s best interests at heart.
As well as doling out cash, Dy Po also donated three generators to three villages next to the fishing lot, and eight trucks of soil to help construct a local pagoda, Sao Vita said.
Despite the gifts, some are suspicious of Dy Po’s motives.
On Dec 26, Minister of Environment Mok Mareth wrote to Hun Sen stating that the Ministry of Agriculture “has an obligation to be responsible and directly solve the problem” of Fishing Lot 16.
The following day, Hun Sen authorized the agriculture ministry to investigate the destruction of the lot.
On Jan 27, Son Chhay wrote to Agriculture Minister Chan Sarun asking him to sue Dy Po for destruction of state property.
But Dy Po has not been deterred. He has written letters of appeal to First Vice National Assembly President Heng Samrin, Senate President Chea Sim and Chan Sarun, asserting that his development plans would serve the public interest.
And on Jan 16, his lawyer wrote to Hun Sen seeking approval for the development plan.
The letter described the donations made to the villagers, and a plan to build a new community elsewhere to which poor families of Kampong Os, Prek Tamer and Dang Korm villages could be relocated.
“I have a plan to relocate the poor people…to the development site [protecting them] from various disasters,” Sao Vita wrote, though he did not use the opportunity to elaborate on his plans for the 1,500 hectares.
On Friday, Chan Sarun said his ministry is investigating.
“The fishing area returned by the government must be returned to the villagers,” Chan Sarun said. “We are studying the damage committed by Oknha Dy Po, then we will lodge a complaint to the court.”
Son Chhay said the property must be returned to the state, and that if need be, he will take action alone.
“I hope Minister Chan Sarun will take legal action in this case,” he said. “If he denies to do it, I will do it myself.”