A group of families claiming ownership over land in Phnom Penh’s Russei Keo district have vowed to fight the municipality’s plans to seize and develop their property, and threatened a work crew on Tuesday with axes and sticks.
“We want our land back,” said Kong Thy, who says his family has lived on the contested plot since the 1980s.
Phnom Penh municipality intends to build a road and drainage system and market the 20-hectare plot in the Kilometr Pram Muay commune as a developed area, said Chhoun Sothy, director of the city’s land management department.
Chhoun Sothy denied that City Hall, while trying to relocate the families who claim ownership of the site to smaller plots of land, has plans to sell the land for profit after its development.
“We want to make Phnom Penh beautiful,” Chhoun Sothy said.
In May 2003, Chhoun Sothy told Prime Minister Hun Sen that the city was offering the 47 families a deal that would allow the municipality to develop the area. That deal, however, meant the families had to give-up their plots of land in return for smaller plots nearby.
According to the deal, any family owning a deed for 25,000 square meters or more would receive in turn a 1,200-square-meter plot. Any landowner holding less than that would receive 600 square meters.
Kong Thy said such a deal is unacceptable.
On Tuesday morning, he and about 40 others chased away workmen whom municipal officials had ordered to fill their rice paddies with sand.
If the city succeeds in developing the land, “this is a big loss for us,” Kong Thy said.
The land dispute dates back to at least 1991, when the 47 families claiming ownership of the site were removed as the municipality claimed the land, parceled it and sold it to more than 700 families at $400 per plot.
However, after the original owners protested the forced relocation, Hok Lundy, then-governor of Phnom Penh, reversed that order and returned the land to the families.
The dispute flared again in 2000 when a Phnom Penh municipal deputy governor challenged the 47 families’ ownership and ordered them to halt any building or planting of crops on the contested plots.
Two years later, former Phnom Penh governor Chea Sophara assured the families that the city would not develop the land.