Ministry Sold Land From Under 163 Families

The day before a hectare of land in Phnom Penh was set to be divided among 163 families who won a rare land-dispute victory over a wealthy businesswoman, the Agriculture Ministry on Wednesday issued a letter claiming it gave the entire plot to a construction firm in 2009.

The families were granted the 9,982-square-meter plot in Sen Sok district by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in 2007 following a dispute with local businesswoman Keo Neam. Mr. Neam unsuccessfully challenged the municipal court’s decision, which was upheld by the Appeal Court in 2008 and by the Supreme Court in 2011.

Houy Daravy, a representative of 163 families involved in a land dispute in Sen Sok district, holds a letter issued by the agriculture minister outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Houy Daravy, a representative of 163 families involved in a land dispute in Sen Sok district, holds a letter issued by the agriculture minister outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

One of the awardees, Chea Sarom, has since claimed the whole area for her family and prevented the others from settling on it.

But on Wednesday, deputy district governor Mou Manith said that a deputy prosecutor from the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, aided by police, intended to intervene on Thursday and properly divide up the land among the 163 families.

Before the work could begin, however, the Agriculture Ministry on Wednesday sent a letter to Municipal Court director Taing Sunlay claiming the ministry previously owned the plot and in 2009 gave it the Kim Hap Company as part of a land swap.

“Please…delay the implementation of the verdict of the Supreme Court to research this dispute,” the letter says.

According to the letter, which was signed by Agriculture Minister Ouk Rabun, the ministry initially owned a 28,904-square-meter plot of land in Sen Sok. In June 2009, the letter says, the ministry gave 11,701 square meters of that land to the Kim Hap Company in exchange for the construction of a new, three-story building at the ministry for its machinery department.

“The Ministry of Land Management gave a land title dated June 25, 2009 to the Kim Hap Company for the 11,701 square meters,” it says. “The Ministry of Agriculture would like to certify that the location was registered as state property of the machinery department.”

Lor Reaksmey, spokesman for the Agriculture Ministry, said Thursday that the plot the ministry gave to the company included the entire area awarded to the 163 families.

“We swapped that land with the Kim Hap Company a long time ago and we want the Phnom Penh court to examine the verdict again,” he said. “The land was given to Kim Hap, so they own it.”

Mr. Reaksmey added that the ministry only intervened Thursday because the Kim Hap Company had asked it to do so last week.

“I cannot analyze whether the Supreme Court’s decision is right or wrong,” he said. “But if they look at the case, it’s clear the Ministry of Agriculture gave it to the company.”

Sen Sok district governor Ly Saveth said his officials and the deputy prosecutor did not divide up the disputed land Thursday as planned because it was now unclear who owned it.

“We have not found the real [owner] of the land,” Mr. Saveth said. “[W]e…are not allowing anyone to get the land yet.”

Sia Phearum, director of the Housing Rights Task Force, said that if the Agriculture Ministry had given the land to the Kim Hap Company, the ministry should have stepped in when the dispute began a decade ago.

“Why hasn’t the Agriculture Ministry said anything since 2005, when the villagers had the dispute?” he said.

“Three courts already made their decisions and the villagers won and received the verdict.”

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