The Phnom Penh Municipality has not paid more than $100,000 owed to local landowners for a large plot of land currently used for relocated squatters, and could not directly account for at least $7,500 of donated money earmarked for the site, sparking fears that city officials misappropriated the funds.
Landowners have staged at least three protests recently and tried to block city officials from relocating 297 squatter families to Kraing Ang Kaung village, on Dangkao district land. The landowners have since stopped efforts to halt the relocation and the 297 families now live on the site.
The 5-hectare site, 11 km from Phnom Penh near Pochentong Airport, was purchased by the city as a relocation site for the families left homeless by the March 12 Block Tanpa rooftop squatter village fire.
The city bought the land from six villagers on March 22 for $145,227.60, or $2.80 per square meter, according to a contract dated March 21 and signed by Municipal Cabinet Chief Mann Chhoeun.
The document was supplied by the Kraing Ang Kaung village chief Pouv Poh on Monday and confirmed by several villagers who say the city still owes them money.
According to the document, the city had paid a total of $12,500 to six different identified villagers for the land, but still owed them more than $120,000.
Another document signed by Mann Chhoeun on June 17 confirmed that the city bought the land from the people and agreed to “provide to the land lot owners 50 percent of the money owed” by June 26. If the city did not pay the amount by the deadline, the municipality “will do whatever is requested by the land lot [owners],” the document stated.
“[Mann Chhoeun] wrote the document [on June 17] after villagers protested and refused to let squatters onto the land,” Pouv Poh said Monday. “We want the money that the city owes us.”
On June 16, the landowners also sent a letter to the UN asking for their help.
“We inform the chief of the UN that the municipality and Mann Chhoeun have agreed to buy the land from villagers and have paid $2.80 per square meter for 51,876 square meters. The city has paid $12,500,” the letter states.
Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara on Tuesday admitted that the city has not paid the landowners the money because the Ministry of Finance has not yet disbursed the $145,000 to the city, but expects to get the money “very soon.”
“The city will pay the villagers the money as soon as we get it,” Chea Sophara said.
However, in April, a Latin American charity group called Selavip sent $20,000 to UN-Habitat. The $20,000 was earmarked specifically for the purchase of the 5-hectare plot of land in question. On April 24, officials from the UN handed the money over to the city, which promised to use the money to buy land.
If the city received the $20,000 donation, it should have used the entire amount instead of just $12,500, villagers said. The whereabouts of the remaining $7,500 is still in question, the villagers said.
Chea Sophara, however, disputed the claim that the remaining money is either missing or was misused.
“We are going to use that money for land we have not bought yet,” Chea Sophara said. Documents produced by the landowners and village chief may be incorrect, he said. But the governor said he could not provide documentation for the $20,000 because it is being processed.
In the meantime, the squatters at the site are still in a difficult situation. Many former Block Tanpa residents have been living with relatives or on the street since the fire.
The city started moving the 297 families to Kraing Ang Kaung about one month ago. But according to residents in the village, the city has not provided promised basic needs such as electricity, water and shelter.
The villagers are currently using wood shacks covered with blue tarps for shelter. For water, residents trek 1-km to buy water from another villager, despite a city pledge to supply two water trucks a day for the relocation site, said Chea Ngoun, the village chief of the relocation site.
Schooling for children and finding jobs is also difficult. Many residents either sell goods such as coffee and instant noodles at the Kraing Ang Kaung site or work as motorcycle taxi drivers. And older children must walk 1 or 2 km to the local high school.
“Life here is much different,” Chea Ngoun said.