Ananth Baliga and Touch Sokha
The Phnom Penh Post, Thu, 1 December 2016
Chea Sophat stood on the gravel embankment of a road as he pointed to what was once his rice field, an unfenced, 4,000-square-metre waterlogged plot with a handful of buffaloes wallowing in the mud.
Across the Tonle Sap river, Phnom Penh was celebrating the festivities of the Water Festival – longboat races, music concerts, an appearance by the King – but on Chroy Changvar, 63-year-old Sophat was consumed by worry.
“The land was used for farming before the company filled it with sand. Now I cannot use it,” he said, pointing to mounds of sand scattered around his plot that have destroyed the land’s ability to drain.
Passing motorbikes and cars tossed up clouds of cement dust and sand on the nearby road being constructed for what has been dubbed the “City of the Future”.
Sophat’s land is in the process of being seized by the Phnom Penh Municipality to facilitate the development of the $1.6 billion Chroy Changvar satellite city. The 387-hectare development promises modern condominium and villa residences, a sports stadium, a business district and even a new bridge and rail system connecting it with the city.
The project extends north of the Chroy Changvar roundabout, and is nestled between National Road 6 and the Tonle Sap riverbank. However, as with many large development projects, a number of villages sit on the proposed site, and residents are now locked in a land dispute with City Hall. The dispute’s roots are more than 20 years old.
In 1994, the government banned the construction of homes on the land, with then-first prime minister Norodom Ranariddh officially designating the site for development two years later.
But during the 1998 election campaign, Prime Minister Hun Sen promised that landowners who had lived on the site for at least five years would not be evicted. He reiterated the promise in a 2002 speech intended to calm eviction fears at the time.
While some villagers – those living 100 metres or less from National Road 6 and the banks of the Tonle Sap – have reaped the benefits of this promise and have been excluded from the project site, Sophat and some 200 families residing within the development zone have not been so lucky.
“City Hall is like a parent to us villagers, but this parent does not care about its children,” Sophat said. “How can they force us to accept this when they are wrong?”
In September, City Hall issued villagers on the peninsula a final ultimatum: Either part with 90 percent of the land they now occupy, or accept $15 per square metre. OCIC, in its project prospectus aimed at would-be buyers, pegged the land price at an average of $600 per square metre.
Time is up
Months of meetings and negotiations have seen little progress towards an amicable compromise. And since a November 14 deadline to accept the offer passed, uncertainty has hung over residents of the peninsula.
When Sophat rides around the peninsula on his motorbike, he always keeps a bag bursting with documents at his side. Rifling through the documents for reporters, he removed land certificates issued by local authorities recognising the owners of the land and tax invoices. (more…)