Prime Minister Hun Sen has ordered authorities to investigate an alleged land grab by Rural Development Ministry officials inside a municipal compound near a big road-improvement project.
Ly Proh, planning director for the ministry, in particular, is accused of grabbing state property in a compound in Russei Keo district, according to a complaint filed by municipal employees.
The complaint further alleges that another Rural Development Ministry official ordered two ponds on the municipal site to be filled in for a gasoline warehouse and garage.
After examining the complaint, a legal adviser to the prime minister recommended that the case be investigated and Hun Sen agreed, according to documents dated Sept 23.
“We have documents that show the land belongs to the state,” said Chea Sophan, secretary of state for the Council of Ministers. For that reason, he has ordered the Finance Ministry, Inspection Ministry and the National Committee on Land Disputes to investigate the case. “After they make a report to the government, Prime Minister Hun Sen will decide how to solve the issue.”
Ly Proh defended himself Tuesday, saying the land was legally granted to him by the municipality, and he has nothing to do with any warehouse project.
“I requested the Phnom Penh municipality to give me a piece of land in the compound in 1995 or 1996 because I wanted to build my house, and they agreed,” Ly Proh said, displaying a land title certificate issued on Dec 29, 1998 by the municipality’s land title director. “I’m honored because the municipality gave me the land.” But he said he doesn’t have enough money to start his house.
Municipal Cabinet Chief Mann Chhoeun said he was unaware a land title certificate had been issued and stressed that local authorities do not have the right to grant such property. According to a 1997 subdecree, any property used for or controlled by public institutions is state property.
Senior officials at the Rural Development Ministry, who asked not to be named, speculated that Ly Proh and other officials might have planned to profit from the widening of the road.
“I’ve known the plan to rehabilitate the street as [a section of] the highway,” Ly Proh said but did not elaborate. He added that if the government decides the land belongs to the state, he will return it immediately.
In addition to the alleged land grab, there is a question of whether Ly Proh and other officials might have used the Ministry of Rural Development’s name or budget to fill the ponds.
One document shows that in March 1998, Rural Development Secretary of State Yim Chhai Ly requested the municipality to fill the two ponds for a warehouse and garage. The municipality agreed with the request in January 1999, but by then the ponds already had been filled, according to the documents.
Yim Chhai Ly acknowledged Thursday the Ministry requested the ponds filled, but said the warehouse project was canceled because of lack of budget. “Ly Proh [then] asked me to give a piece of land and I gave it to him.”
In the documents, workers maintain Ly Proh paid $1,000 for pond-filling in March 1998 but say they still are owed $10,772.
Ly Proh said he was not aware of who requested the ponds be filled and said he paid a portion of the cost only out of pity for workers. He also maintained there has been no plan to build a warehouse on the land, noting he would have known since he has been planning director for years.
The Ministry of Rural Development has come under scrutiny in recent months. Yim Chhai Ly, Ly Proh and other officials of the ministry allegedly submitted false documents in attempts to receive $570,000 of Japanese donor money for six road projects. The Ministry of Finance is investigating. The disbursement of the money is still on hold. (Additional reporting by Ham Samnang)