Volunteer Attempts To Uncover History of the Friends Location

Human rights workers and villagers have accused community leaders in Sihanoukville’s Ream National Park of illegally selling more than 110 hectares of protected forest to private interests.

Since the beginning of the year, businesspeople have cleared protected forest in Prey Nop district, and now more than 60 residential homes have been built on the land, park director Nouv Karun said Tuesday.

“The unlawful selling and buying [of land] is widespread after a few people cleared the forest and grabbed the land earlier this year…. It is getting worse since the election,” Nouv Karun said. One developer has even claimed to have permission to build a market on the land, he added.

Kang Kong, a representative of local villagers, said Tuesday that he had sent a complaint asking district and commune officials to take ac­tion against those clearing forest inside the park. By Michelle Vachon

The Cambodia daily

At first, the project seemed simple enough: to find out the history of the 1920s buildings where the organization Mith Samlanh/Friends is located near the National Museum in Phnom Penh.

Short of any historical data, Friends International volunteer Penny Tynan put out a call for information on the property.

The search was prompted by the fact that Mith Samlanh, which owns the site on Street 13, intends to construct better facilities for the children who use the buildings there.

“We’ve started by identifying which buildings are of cultural and historical significance [which should be kept] and which buildings really need to be demolished because it’s not an efficient use of space” on the 5,000-square-meter lot, she said.

Tynan’s research started with in­formation from staff.

“We have anecdotal evidence that the site was owned by a Belgian family who established it as a rubber export factory between 1920 and 1950,” she said.

A few years ago, a Belgian tourist asked to visit Mith Samlanh’s compound, saying that his father had built it, his family having once lived in the building now housing the organization’s popular restaurant on Street 13, Tynan said.

Unfortunately, the staff let the Bel­gian man visit without taking his name and no one has been able to con­­tact him since, she said.

In a bid to track down information about the buildings’ Belgian links, Tynan followed up by contacting the Belgian Embassy in Bangkok and asked it to pass on her request for information to Belgian embassies around the world. She also learned that, in the 1950s, the facility became a bicycle factory and, maybe at the same time, a Renault car garage. Ty­nan has located people who worked at the bicycle factory and is now interviewing them.

Tynan’s search for photos has proven unsuccessful. Most of the shots brought in by former bicycle factory workers have focused on people rather than buildings.

At the Bophana Audiovisual Re­source Center, she found a photo that might be of the Belgian family’s home in the 1920s, but nothing of the site in the 1950s and 1960s has been turned up. And no official re­cords have so far been found with the names of owners prior to 1979.

The National Archives in Phnom Penh has property data up to Cam­bodia’s Independence at the end of 1953, but some files may be incomplete, deputy director Lim Ky said.

And, legally speaking, there is no need for government offices to keep land title records that far back: The 2001 Land Law stipulates that property ownership prior to 1979 is not recognized, said Matthew Rendall, a partner in the law firm of Sciaroni & Associates.

But Tynan said she is not giving up her search to uncover the past .

Some of the documents Tynan ob­tained are exhibited at Friends The Restaurant until Sat­urday as part of the “Architecture + Urban Design Month” series.

The documents include Phnom Penh maps of the 1920s showing the Chinese neighborhood around today’s Phsar Thmei, the Cambod­ian neighborhood west of the Royal Palace, and a lake in what is today’s Boeng Keng Kang district.

“Knowing the history of the [Friends] site is important for the children,” Tynan said, “for them to see the stages their country has gone through and that there is a contemporary history—as well as the Angkorian period—that has been beautiful.”

“We’re seeking intervention from all concerned and involved officials to help confiscate the land,” he said.

In their complaint the villagers alleged that a community leader in O’Okhna Heng commune is openly selling protected land.

Contacted Tuesday, commune chief Kea Veau denied the villagers’ allegations.

“Some bad people just grabbed the protected forest and cleared the forest land,” he said before declining to comment further.

Deputy District Governor Nop Phean said the land in question is not protected forest but farmland and villages that have existed for years.

Nop Phean also said that 37 hectares of the land legally belong to a Phnom Penh businessman and a developer. He blamed villagers for illegally seizing that land and other adjacent property.

Nop Phean added he has asked the businessman, whom he did not identify, to donate 10 hectares of land to disgruntled villagers.

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