Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday asked villagers from the capital’s Russei Keo district for forgiveness over a road-widening project that villagers say threatens their land, and personally stepped in to suggest a compromise that would allow many residents to keep their homes.
“Please understand and forgive [me] regarding this matter. There were some loopholes because my inspection was not serious enough,” the premier said in a telephone call broadcast to about 200 villagers gathered at a restaurant in the district’s Chroy Changva commune.
Residents had been told to clear their land to allow authorities to widen a 4-kilometer stretch of National Road 6A, starting just east of the Japanese Friendship Bridge. Some had even been told they would have to relocate altogether.
Shortly after 3 pm, Mr Hun Sen telephoned district governor Khlaing Huot, who held his mobile telephone to a microphone to broadcast the premier’s voice at a meeting with villagers.
Mr Hun Sen told villagers that the issue had been weighing on his mind.
“Last night I could not sleep at all. I was waiting for the rising sun to travel to directly inspect the site and to see you in order to decide what to do next.
“Finally we decided to reduce the size [of the proposed road-widening project] to 15 meters on both sides, which means 30 meters wide. The previous plan was for 60 meters,” he said.
Lonh Thuon, one of the villagers, said he was delighted to hear Mr Hun Sen’s words.
“I am really very happy. I am so excited by Samdech [Hun Sen]’s decision,” said Mr Thuon, 75.
Mr Huot said that authorities would offer residents who must relocate an improved compensation package. Officials had initially offered resettlement on 6-by-8-meter plots of land 27 km north of the capital, as well as $500. While the monetary compensation remains unchanged, residents will now be given 6-by-12-meter plots located in nearby Prek Liep commune.
Officials, who rushed to Russei Keo district office yesterday morning, said Mr Hun Sen traveled across the Japanese bridge on National Road 6A, before crossing to National Road 5 across Prek Kdam bridge and then returning to Phnom Penh.
Emerging after a two-hour, closed-door meeting, the premier asked broadcasters not to disclose any information regarding his personal visit to the district.
During the telephone call the premier called on the villagers to support the new plan.
“In this difficult circumstance, brothers and sisters, please understand and open the way for public officials to construct the road to serve our public interest,” he said.
It was unclear yesterday why Mr Hun Sen had chosen to express regret to parties in this land dispute out of the many in the capital. The housing rights NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut reported in 2008 that 133,000 Phnom Penh residents, or 11 percent of the city’s population, had been subject to evictions since 1990.
According to Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, the prime minister intervenes in disputes when the policies of his government affect the lives of Cambodian citizens.
Mr Siphan said that the prime minister may have chosen this case because, unlike other ongoing disputes like that surrounding the filling of Boeng Kak lake, no other officials had taken responsibility for resolving the dispute.
“They have a committee to solve [the Boeng Kak lake] problem, but…I have not heard of any committee trying to solve this issue,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Ian Williamson)