The Finance Ministry has sent a letter to well-known businesswoman Choeung Sopheap thanking her for paying her taxes on the highly controversial filling in of Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak lake, and holding her firm up as an example of corporate professionalism.
Though Shukaku Inc., which is run by Ms. Sopheap and her husband, CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin, has been subjected to years of criticism and protests for its role in the forcible eviction of some 3,000 families from around the now filled-in lake, Finance Minister Keat Chhon said the firm was a good partner with the government in reducing poverty and developing the country.
“I, on behalf of the Ministry of Economy and Finance, profoundly give thanks to Chumteav director-general of Shukaku Inc. for having fulfilled her obligation by paying the full taxes on the sand pumping to fill in the Boeng Kak development area, which will go into the national budget,” Mr. Chhon wrote in the letter, which was posted Tuesday on a popular news website.
“The Ministry of Economy and Finance hopes and strongly believes that Chumteav Oknha will continue to set a good example and cooperate more closely with the government to take part in reducing poverty and developing the country.”
The minister made no mention in his letter of how much Shukaku paid in taxes for filling in the lake, and Finance Ministry officials declined to comment.
Although government tax revenues are still small and economists often say businesses should be more accountable in paying taxes, international and national rights groups have held the Boeng Kak project up as a prime example of what is wrong with the government’s approach to urban development.
The thousands of evicted Boeng Kak families either accepted free housing at ill-equipped relocation sites on the city’s outskirts or took cash payouts of $8,500 each, believed to be well below the market value for their land and not enough to buy comparable plots in the city center.
Boeng Kak residents continue to protest against their eviction, and in so doing have been regularly beaten by police, detained and even jailed.
Tep Vanny, a Boeng Kak resident convicted last year of inciting violence for peacefully protesting against the evictions, said the Finance Minister’s letter sent the wrong message.
“The letter from the minister strongly supports the company to develop by violating human rights and without thinking about the impact on the people,” Ms. Vanny said.
“His letter will encourage other companies to continue their developments by violating human rights and with forced evictions.”
In a report last month, housing rights NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT) said the government had evicted some 150,000 Phnom Penh residents, roughly 10 percent of the city’s population, over the past two decades, leaving most of them worse off than they were.
STT programs coordinator Ee Sarom agreed with Ms. Vanny.
“This is a bad message for bad investment to grab more land from communities without compensation…so this is not a good sign,” he said.
“While they [the government] accept the tax from the company, they should consider the demands of the community, because a number of things have not been solved yet,” he said of the ongoing protests at Boeng Kak.
Though the government in 2011 allowed some 600 families who refused to be evicted to keep their homes at Boeng Kak, residents have continued to protest against a decision to leave dozens of fellow residents out of the deal.