A valuable parcel of government-owned land in Siem Reap has been rented to a Taiwanese souvenir shop for a nominal sum, leading a top government official to call for the deal to be canceled.
According to documents obtained by The Cambodia Daily, Minister of Finance Keat Chhon last week asked Prime Minister Hun Sen to reclaim the land as state property. A source at the ministry said no rent was ever paid into state coffers.
The land in question is a 3,325-square-meter plot in a choice location opposite the new police headquarters and close to the Royal Residence and the Grand Hotel d’Angkor.
For several years, a portion of the site was occupied by the Siem Reap bureau of Agence Khmer Press, the government press agency. AKP employees say the land was owned by the Ministry of Information, which oversees AKP.
Keat Chhon, in his Dec 25 letter to Hun Sen, confirmed that the land belongs to AKP. He said, however, that neither the Ministry of Information nor provincial authorities had listed the property on the Finance Ministry’s inventory of state-owned land.
According to Keat Chhon’s investigation, the plot was split into two properties in 1996, when Ton Chay, then-governor of Siem Reap, approved a 30-year lease for 1,380 square meters to Sou Long Vanny. The rent was to be $200 per month.
At some point, Sou Long Vanny made a deal with a Taiwanese couple who built the Angkor Souvenir Shop on the plot, which overlooks the garden that stretches from the Royal Residence to the Grand Hotel d’Angkor.
On Dec 3, 2001, a second deal was signed for the remaining 1,945 square meters. This time the deal was between Chen Wan Huy, who runs the souvenir shop, and Kit Kim Huon, the new director-general of AKP.
The new 49-year lease sets a monthly rent of $300, which is to increase $30 per year annually for the first 10 years. The lease also specified that the renter must pay $10,000 up front to conclude the deal, which was approved by Siem Reap Governor Chap Nhalyvoud.
Chen Wan Huy last week referred questions about the deal to Chap Nhalyvoud. The governor said he had simply acted as a “coordinator” between AKP and the renters but had nothing to do with the deal itself.
Kit Kim Huon, the AKP’s director-general, twice refused to answer any questions about the land deal. Ordered to speak to a reporter by Minister of Information Lu Leysreng, she said only that the land had been rented, not sold, and she had nothing to hide.
She declined to produce any documents related to the transaction, however, and would not answer any more questions.
Keat Chhon, in his letter to Hun Sen, asked the prime minister for permission to cancel both leases and to reclaim control of the land “by a legal process for the advantage of the nation.”
On Dec 28, Keat Chhon wrote to Prince Norodom Ranariddh, president of the National Assembly, to inform him that the government had decided to keep the 3,325-square-meter plot and possibly lease it again.
Opposition parliamentarians had begun raising questions about the land deal after it was publicized in Khmer-language newspapers in early December. Son Chhay, a National Assembly member from Siem Reap, said he had asked provincial authorities for documents relating to the deal but had been refused.
He said he suspects the land was actually sold, not rented, because no rent money was sent to the Ministry of Finance. If that is so, he said, “why hasn’t the government punished the seller and accomplices?”
Yim Sovann, a Sam Rainsy Party member from Phnom Penh, said that even if the land was only leased, the rents being paid are far too low, given the high value of Siem Reap property.
“I think a proper price to lease that land would be at least $700 to $1,000 per month,” Yim Sovann said. He also questioned why, if the government wanted to lease a piece of land, it did not put it up for public bid to get the highest price possible.
The AKP has fallen on hard financial times in recent months. Kit Kim Huot said in October it had been forced to borrow money to stay in operation. Two years ago it was printing a daily bulletin in English, French and Khmer; by October it was down to 300 copies in Khmer on an irregular basis.