The Ministry of Health will begin moving staff from its headquarters on Kampuchea Krom Boulevard to a new six-story building in Tuol Kok district on Monday after cutting a deal with well-connected businesswoman Choeung Sopheap, who will take over the ministry site, a senior official and ministry staff said on Thursday.
The official, who was working inside the building on Thursday, confirmed the property was now owned by Ms. Sopheap, often called Yeay Phu, the powerful owner of development firm Pheapimex and wife of CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin.
As is common practice when government offices are moved, staff at the ministry received compensation—in this case directly from Ms. Sopheap, he said.
“She came to the ministry on August 26 to hand out cash payments to officials with the rank of secretary and undersecretary,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his position.
Ms. Sopheap’s son, Lao Vann, came to distribute smaller sums of cash to lower-level staff on Wednesday, the official added.
“The top officials received between $2,000 and $1,000 based on their ranks,” he said, adding that some lower-level staff members were given only $100 each for having to move office.
“The proper pay for low-level officials should be about $500 because the same staff at the Ministry of Women Affairs were offered $600,” he said, referring to a land swap deal between the government and the Try Pheap Group in May that saw the Women’s Affairs Ministry move from prime property on Norodom Boulevard to Stung Meanchey commune.
Neither Ms. Sopheap nor her son could be reached for comment Thursday.
The government has sold or swapped numerous properties in central Phnom Penh over the past decade while keeping the details of the deals closely guarded. In almost every case, ministries have given up prime locations along main thoroughfares in exchange for new buildings in less desirable locales.
While Prime Minister Hun Sen has warned officials not to swap hospitals or schools, he has defended other swaps as being akin to horse-trading.
“Bringing a horse to exchange for a horse is good policy for the government,” he said in a 2012 speech.
In November, Mr. Hun Sen signed a sub-decree that reclassified several government-owned buildings belonging to the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications and the former Ministry of Mines, Energy and Industry to become state-private property, paving the way for their sale.
Despite the Ministry of Health’s imminent move, a number of top officials at the ministry declined to discuss the deal Thursday.
Eng Huot, a secretary of state at the ministry, declined to comment, while another secretary of state, Heng Taykry, said it was not within his authority to discuss the matter, referring questions to Health Minister Mam Bunheng.
“Why do you ask me? Please ask the minister,” he said.
Mr. Bunheng could not be reached for comment this week.
Mao Heng, deputy director of the Phnom Penh municipal health department, said he heard about the relocation about a year ago but paid no attention to it.
“This is not related to me. The top can see the bottom, but the bottom can’t look up at the top,” he said.
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said the municipality had no knowledge of the move.
Construction on the new six-story ministry headquarters was still ongoing Thursday in front of the National Institute for Public Health in Toul Kok. Preparation work began about two years ago, according to staff there.
“Construction on the building began more than a year ago,” one employee said, declining to be named because he was not authorized to speak with the media.
Inside the Ministry of Health’s administration department on Thursday, a woman working there was packing up documents and equipment alongside her colleagues. She said they had only recently been informed they would have to move next week.
“The top levels agreed to this with each other, but we, the subordinates, don’t have a say in anything and were only recently informed,” she said. “I’m not happy about it at all because the old location is close to my home.”
And despite many high-ranking ministry and municipal officials claiming not to know about the deal, she said she knew exactly who ended up owning the old ministry.
“She is the oknha named Choeung Sopheap.”