Cambodia’s great asset swap angers many, leaves government on the fringe

PHNOM PENH – As bulldozers slam down huge trees outside, Tann Sinthou brandishes a meticulously highlighted copy of Cambodia’s land law, hoping it will save her home, the latest public asset to go under the hammer in a slew of government land swaps.

"This land is state land," the defiant 54-year-old cries from her veranda at Cambodia’s fine arts university campus, where some of 28 families yet to leave after receiving an order to vacate in March have gathered.

"This is the land law, and the land law states that public schools and land cannot be sold unless the land cannot be used," the philosophy lecturer says.

But the campus has already been handed to a private company in just one particularly high-profile swap in Cambodia, where land prices are clawing upwards and legal changes that will make such deals more difficult loom.

The private sector has already received an estimated 100 properties — some historical and already demolished — in the past year from ministries seeking to line their own coffers, activists claim.

Buildings such as prisons, hospitals and ordinary offices have all been swapped or are in the process of changing hands.

"They say the government does not have the money to pay for a new building and there are companies who are willing to take the old property and replace it at a different location," opposition member of parliament Son Chhay charges.

But he says companies are receiving prime real estate in return for marginal properties on the outskirts of the city, adding that "it doesn’t make sense".

"Why don’t you auction the land, get the money and use the money to purchase another place, and have another bidding process to construct the new building?"

The vocal critic of the swaps alleges that ingrained corruption means money from the sale of assets — or the profits — never reaches the kingdom’s almost-empty coffers.

"Where is it going? They are pocketing it most of the time," he says, claiming the Finance Ministry ignores what’s going on when high-ranking officials approve the swaps.

Even lakes in the low-lying capital are being filled in and sold off, the lawmaker alleges, leaving those who used to collect wild plants and flowers from them without an income.

"It’s become a competition," Son Chhay says.

The rush to swap comes ahead of the expected passage of a law this year that will demand more transparency in such transactions, which was demanded by international donors during their annual meeting last December.

"If this subdecree is passed, they will have no chance to keep carrying out this corruption," says Vann Sin, a program officer with Oxfam Great Britain who closely monitors land issues.

Prime Minister Hun Sen acted last month to stem the flurry of swaps by passing a low-level order to halt them, but Vann Sin says it is too little too late.

"A few months after they have sold off the buildings, they issue it!" he exclaims, adding that he doubts the swaps will actually stop. "They’re smart. Even if they sell now, they’ll date the transactions back further. It’s not finished."

Koul Panha from election monitoring group COMFREL estimates that about 100 buildings, small and large, have been swapped since Hun Sen began his third government mandate in July 2004.

The figure is "not well recorded and that’s the problem — it’s our observation. You can go to the Ministry of Finance and ask them, do you have this number? They say no, we don’t have it," he says.

Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith insists the deals are transparent and legal.

"Every country does this, but it is important that the exchange is transparent," he says, adding that critics "should look at the law before they comment".

He says the swaps are part of a deliberate plan to shift government services to the perimeter of the city, home to 1.2 million people, to relieve increasing congestion.

Such decentralisation is making it tougher for ordinary Cambodians to access services, Koul Panha argues. The new fine arts university, for instance, is about a 45-minute drive from its current location.

"Some places are on the outskirts in this corner, other places are on the outskirts in another corner. So they are not organised. It’s very confused, there’s no masterplan at all."

History is also being lost. A notorious colonial-era prison known as T3 has been shifted far outside the capital — making it difficult for prisoners’ families to reach — while the original has been demolished.

"I am very much concerned about the historical side. If I was in the government, I would have kept it as a museum … For the future, there’s no information about T3 prison."

At the university of fine arts, Tann Sinthou’s community wins a temporary reprieve from the bulldozers as the company agrees to continue negotiations. She wants to keep a quarter of the land for the community to rebuild.

"Does the government care about the hearts of people who love arts? We are preserving the soul of Cambodia. If they kill us, they kill the soul of Cambodia," she says.

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