A development firm owned by CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin and accused of illegally evicting thousands of families from central Phnom Penh recently sold a small piece of its project area for $14.9 million to a company with ties to one of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s sisters.
Rights groups say the sale violates the terms of a 99-year lease Mr. Meng Khin’s Shukaku Inc. signed with the government in 2007. Families in the area are considering filing a complaint with the Anti-Corruption Unit.
Shukaku paid $79 million for its lease to 133 hectares of prime real estate in Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak neighborhood and subsequently evicted some 3,000 families in violation of the country’s Land Law. With the backing of a Chinese investor, it broke ground on an ambitious real estate project in mid-2011, but quickly stopped and has left the area fallow since.
On Friday, Singapore-based HLH Group posted an announcement on the Singapore bourse that an associate company, D’Lotus Development Limited, was buying 1.35 hectares from Shukaku, with plans to build an office tower, luxury condos and retail space on the land.
HLH’s headquarters in Singapore referred all questions about the deal to the offices of HLH Agriculture in Phnom Penh, where officials ignored several requests for comment. According to registration records with Cambodia’s Ministry of Commerce, HLH Agriculture is wholly owned by HLH Agri International Pte. Ltd., a division of HLH Group.
HLH Agriculture owns a plantation in Kompong Speu province’s Phnom Aural Wildlife Sanctuary. In February 2010, a sister of Prime Minister Hun Sen, Hun Seng Ny, visited the area to allay concerns among locals that the plantation would encroach on their farms, and officials described HLH as “her company,” according to villagers and rights workers.
Later that same month, a woman working at HLH Agriculture’s Phnom Penh office said Ms. Seng Ny was the company’s director.
In May 2012, Ms. Seng Ny visited the company’s Kompong Speu plantation yet again to negotiate a settlement to the land dispute with locals, according to rights group Licadho.
Three senior officials at Shukaku all declined to comment on the sale to HLH on Tuesday.
It remained unclear whether the 1.35 hectares Shukaku sold was inside a 12.44-hectare area that was cut out of the land leased to the company so that several hundred families could keep their homes.
Though the excised land was meant for the families living on it, Mr. Meng Khin was nonetheless awarded several land titles there.
Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor at Licadho, said the sale was evidence that Shukaku had no intention of developing the project site itself.
“It was just a show and excuse that the land would be used for development…they just sell it,” he said. “The culture of selling and swapping goes on, it’s just a different way…to take people’s land.”
Tep Vanny, a Boeng Kak resident and representative for some of the families there still demanding land titles, said the families were likely to soon file a complaint against Mr. Meng Khin with the ACU over the sale.
Phnom Penh City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said he was “surprised” by news of the sale and could not comment on its legality.
“I cannot comment on this…. I need to check the document,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)