A Singapore-based firm whose subsidiary plans to buy land in Phnom Penh from which thousands of families have been forcibly evicted said Wednesday that the firm had no knowledge of the long-running land dispute.
The firm, HLH Group, also denied any official or financial ties to a sister of Prime Minister Hun Sen, to whom it has been linked in the past.
On Friday, HLH posted an announcement with the Singapore stock exchange that a new subsidiary, D’Lotus Development, had agreed to buy 1.35 hectares in central Phnom Penh for $14.9 million.
It was buying the land from Shukaku Inc., a private firm that won a 99-year lease to 133 hectares of the capital’s Boeng Kak neighborhood in 2007 and proceeded to evict some 3,000 families from their homes.
The evictions have sparked dozens of protests across central Phnom Penh, some of them bloodily broken up by state security forces. The dispute has been grabbing local and international headlines for years.
On Wednesday, however, HLH Group’s CEO and executive deputy chairman, Johnny Ong Bee Huat, who has been working in the country for the past six years, said his firm had no idea of the controversy surrounding the land.
“We don’t know about the land problems,” he said during an interview at the Phnom Penh office of HLH Agriculture Cambodia, a subsidiary of HLH Agri International, which is a division of HLH Group.
Mr. Ong said the purchase had not been finalized yet and that it could take six months before HLH lawyers finished reviewing the deal.
“We cannot be doing investment on any land that has problems. We cannot be doing. Our lawyer has to make sure everything [is] OK,” he said.
“We invest, we must follow the law.”
The HLH announcement to the Singapore Exchange says D’Lotus entered into a “property sale and purchase agreement” with Shukaku last Thursday. Rights groups, however, say that Shukaku has no legal rights to sell the land to a third party under the terms of its lease.
Mr. Ong said he did not know about that, either.
“We don’t know about this problem…. So far we don’t have any comment,” he said.
Mr. Ong also rejected numerous media reports that one of the prime minister’s sisters, Hun Seng Ny, was the owner or director of HLH Agriculture. He said she had no official link to the company.
Mr. Ong acknowledged, however, that Ms. Seng Ny had helped his firm by making repeated visits to HLH Agriculture’s plantation in Kompong Speu province to speak with locals who feared the project would encroach on their farms. He said the firm was put in touch with the prime minister’s sister with the help of “local people,” but could not remember who those people were.
“She [was] coming to help us to coordinate, and briefing [the locals] and [to ask for] understanding,” he said.
Locals who attended the visits said Ms. Seng Ny was introduced as the head or owner of the company, but Mr. Ong said there must have been a misunderstanding.
Shukaku officials declined to comment on the sale, and a spokesman for the city said he knew nothing about it and could not comment on its legality.
Shukaku has filled in the lake that used to be at the center of the Boeng Kak neighborhood with sand, but has not yet built anything on the site except a tiny office building for its staff. Its deal with D’Lotus would be its first known sale of any of the land.
Chan Soveth, deputy head of monitoring for human rights group Adhoc, said the government should investigate the deal.
“The company [Shukaku] cannot sell or swap the land,” he said. “It belongs to the state and it violates the contract, because they got the land to develop it. The relevant ministries—land management, economy and finance, environment and agriculture—should investigate this.”