Rights workers on Tuesday called on the government to make public all transactions surrounding the almost complete filling in of a large lake on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, while two estate agents said the resulting land is probably worth between $20 million and $30 million.
Reports on Monday that Boeng Kbal Damrei was being filled in followed the revelation Thursday by Khlaing Huot, Russei Keo district governor, that Boeng Pong Peay —one of the city’s biggest lakes—has been partially filled in by two private firms that were granted government permission to do so.
Hen Bakkong, Russei Keo district’s bureau chief of land management and urbanization, said Tuesday that what was recently the lake, now belongs to RCAF Commander in Chief Ke Kim Yan. “[Ke Kim Yan] bought more than 200 hectares from the people. I don’t know what he will develop on that site,” Hen Bakkong said.
Contacted Tuesday, Ke Kim Yan said he did not own the firm that is filling in the lake.
“Ask the company over there. I am not the company owner,” he said before hanging up.
The government “sell[s] schools, a hospital, now a lake,” said Kek Galabru, president of rights group Licadho. “The lake belongs to all of us.”
“We’d like the government to reveal how much money has been made and where the money is going,” she said, adding that the public has the right to know.
Phnom Penh’s lakes, which fluctuate in size during the wet and dry seasons, help absorb excessive water in the city, architect and consultant Helen Grant Ross said. Large-scale landfill operations around the city, including the lakes, are putting the city at risk of serious flooding, she said.
Heavy floods would likely cause rain water and sewage to mix, posing a serious health risk, she warned. “Meddling with this kind of natural system, which has a reason to be there…could be a major catastrophe,” she added.
Jouni Anttonen, a team leader with the Finnish-government funded Finnmap FM-International, who is providing technical assistance on land registration to the Ministry of Land Management, said that Boeng Kbal Damrei was about 100 hectares in size.
If this is correct, Saroeun Soush, managing director of Asia Real Property Co Ltd, said the land is probably worth about $20 million. Another leading real estate agent, who asked not to be identified, valued the land at about $30 million.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith referred questions about the demise of the lakes to the Ministry of Land Management and Phnom Penh Municipality.
Im Chhun Lim, Minister of Land Management, and Chea Sophara, secretary of state at the ministry, did not answer repeated phone calls Tuesday.
Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema could not be reached for comment and Mann Chhoeun, municipal cabinet chief, said he was occupied and unable to talk.
Legal experts differed Tuesday on the legality of filling in a lake and then selling the land.
The 2001 Land Law states that lakes are state public property and cannot be privatized, but Boeng Kbal Damrei is no longer a lake.
Lao Mong Hay, a legal expert at the Center for Social Development, said he knew of no law stopping the government from filling in a lake. The government can sell the land to a private firm, but the money belongs to the public.
One foreign legal expert said that although filling in the lake may not be illegal, selling it to a private firm definitely is.
“It’s like taking Wat Phnom from its location and selling the land,” he said on condition of anonymity. “It’s nonsense to say [the lake is] gone so it’s not state property anymore.”