Opposition Calls for Greater Transparency in Gov’t ‘Swaps’

With more state-owned buildings in prime areas of Phnom Penh falling into the hands of private owners under the secretive process of so-called property “swaps,” the opposition party called on Wednesday for the government to come clean on the transactions and to open the deals to public scrutiny.

In late April, the Social Affairs Ministry transferred ownership of its spacious colonial-era building on Norodom Boulevard that once housed the ministry’s directorate of technical affairs to an unknown private developer. Officials have released almost no information on the deal or the new owner other than to say that in exchange for the building on the city’s most prestigious boulevard, the ministry had received an alternate five-story building constructed inside the ministry’s new compound on Monivong Boulevard.

This week steel fencing was spotted around the spacious former residence of the Ministry of Labor on Street 184 behind the Royal Palace.

Minister of Labor Vong Sauth confirmed on Tuesday that the colonial-era building was “swapped” and that the Ministry of Finance had handled the deal. The minister did not provide any other details.

On Wednesday, Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith confirmed that a building owned by his ministry that once housed the Cambodian Communications Institute had been transferred to a construction company that, in exchange, had built a new building inside the Ministry’s compound on Monivong Boulevard.

SRP spokesman and lawmaker for Phnom Penh Yim Sovann said on Wednesday that the government must act transparently when selling off state property.

“We don’t support [the deals], we want the government to open up and include the people,” Mr Sovann said, adding that some 60 percent of state properties in the city had been disposed of in “swaps.”

“It needs to be a competitive bidding process, so we can collect revenue for the state budget. But there is a lot of corruption in these [deals],” Yim Sovann alleged.

Minister of Social Affairs Ith Sam Heng hung up his phone when contacted by a reporter on Wednesday. Secretary of State for the Ministry of Finance Ouk Rabun and Chhim Sareth, director of the ministry’s department of public procurement, could not be reached for comment.

However Chhay Vuth, former director of the Finance Ministry’s public procurement department, said Wednesday that during his years at the department he had never received paperwork or reports regarding state-property swap deals as such transaction were usually handled directly by the ministries involved.

“Generally, such exchanges could take place [without] conducting any wrongdoing,” said Mr Vuth, who retired in 2008. But, he added, the ministries should follow proper legal procedures and conduct their deals through the Ministry of Finance.

Information Minister Mr Kanharith said Wednesday that he was not responsible and could not comment on property swaps made by other ministries, but he said that such deals have all gone through the proper Finance Ministry channels.

“I am a government spokesman, not spokesman for these ministries. Related to the exchange in my ministry I have clear documents and reports,” he said of the former CCI building.

The building, the minister said, will be handed over to Heng Development Co Ltd after the construction of an alternate two-story building, inside the ministry’s compound.

Asked for more details on the deal, Mr Kanharith said he did not have the particulars about the value of the property or the bidding process that led to Heng Construction sealing the deal.

“Don’t be confused; it does not involve selling activities. We have the exchange of new office buildings rather than renovating the old building,” he said.

Contacted by telephone, a woman working for Heng Constructions, who identified herself as Bang Vy, but did not give her title, confirmed the deal and said construction on a new building had already started. She declined to comment further on the bidding process and could not give any other details about the deal.

Lawmaker Mr Sovann said he was not familiar with Heng Construction but added that companies that strike deals on government buildings must be connected with the ruling CPP.


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