Singaporean Firm Cancels Deal to Buy Land at Boeng Kak Lake

22 Dec

By: Zsombor Peter, The Cambodia Daily, December 22, 2014

Shukaku Inc. and Singapore’s HLH Group have agreed to terminate plans that would have seen HLH pay Shukaku $14.9 million for a 1.35 hectare plot of land in Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak neighborhood, the scene of some 3,000 forced evictions.

In an announcement on the Singapore Stock Exchange on Wednesday, HLH said the purchase agreement it announced six months ago was scrapped by mutual agreement with Shukaku, a local firm owned by CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin.

“The board wishes to announce that the seller and the buyer have mutually agreed and entered into a termination agreement on 16 December 2014 to terminate the [sale and purchase agreement] due to commercial reasons, strictly without any liability or breach of either party,” HLH said.

The announcement offers no further explanation for the deal’s demise but says HLH will get its $1.46 million deposit back.

With City Hall’s help, Shukaku evicted thousands of families over the past few years—illegally, housing rights groups say—to make room for a high-end real estate project in Boeng Kak that would cover some 120 hectares.

HLH claimed not to know about the evictions when it announced the purchase agreement in June and did not respond to a request for comment Sunday. Shukaku also did not reply to a request for comment.

Earlier this month, however, Shukaku spokeswoman Amu Pillay said the deal was unlikely to come off due to unspecified financial troubles on the part of HLH. At the time, HLH responded that money was not an issue.

HLH would have been the first company to buy into the area, which has remained undeveloped.

Despite HLH’s departure, Ms. Pillay said Shukaku is moving ahead with plans to install a drainage system at the site and build a five-story office block at the cost of a “few double-digit million U.S. dollars.”

Shukaku says City Hall has also approved a master plan for the 120-hectare site, but has refused to release a copy.

Homes Destroyed in Blaze; Villagers Suspect Arson

22 Dec

Twenty-six homes in a village in Phnom Penh’s Russei Keo district burned to the ground Saturday night in a fire that villagers suspect was started in retaliation for their refusal to obey an order by City Hall to vacate the area.

In late November, more than 600 people living in Kilometr Pram Muoy commune’s Boeng Chhuk village received a notice from City Hall signed by district governor Thuy Sokhan ordering them to vacate their homes to make room for a planned road expansion—or face eviction.

Villagers receive relief goods from the Cambodian Red Cross yesterday after a fire destroyed 26 houses in Boeng Chhuk village in Phnom Penh's Russei Keo district. (John Vink)

Villagers receive relief goods from the Cambodian Red Cross yesterday after a fire destroyed 26 houses in Boeng Chhuk village in Phnom Penh’s Russei Keo district. (John Vink)

But so far, no apparent effort has been made by authorities to follow through with the threat.

Villagers said Sunday, however, that they believe the fire Saturday night, which started inside one of the homes, was a vengeful act of arson.

“Most of the people suspect someone planned to burn the houses because we didn’t leave, but we don’t have evidence,” said Chhim Sophon, 40, who lost the house he had lived in with his wife and three children.

Din Srey Nuch, 19, who lived in the house where the fire originated, said she and her husband left shortly before it started.

“The villagers who opened the door said they saw that the fire started on a pile of clothes in my room, and they smelled gasoline,” Ms. Srey Nuch said.

“We never sold gasoline or kept gasoline in the house,” she added.

Toch Vanna, 40, who also lost her home in the blaze, said fire trucks arrived at about 7 p.m.— an hour after the fire started— but made no attempt to extinguish it until about 8 p.m.

Prum Yort, chief of the municipal fire police, who led 15 trucks to the scene, acknowledged that firefighters were late in responding, blaming traffic congestion, and the condition of the road leading to the village.

“We ran into a lot of traffic and the road in that area has a lot of potholes,” said Mr. Yort, adding that the blaze was extinguished at about 7:20 p.m., contradicting reports from residents.

“Our officers are still investigating the case,” he said. “We cannot say whether it was an accident or someone started it on purpose.”

Mr. Sokhan, the district governor, said Sunday that district officials delivered “gifts” to the villagers affected by the fire, but added that the order to vacate the area still stands.

“We are still ordering them to leave as soon as possible,” he said before hanging up on a reporter.

 

Montagnards en Route to Phnom Penh

21 Dec

By: Aun Pheap, Phnom Penh Post, 21 December 2014

The U.N. is transferring a group of 13 Montagnard asylum seekers who have been hiding in a forest in Ratanakkiri province for the past two months to Phnom Penh, the U.N. and police said on Sunday.

“I just know they are on their way” to Phnom Penh, said Bushra Rahman, a spokeswoman for the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia. 

“I haven’t received an update today,” she added.

Chhay Thy, the provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said one group of eight Montagnards left the forest to meet with the U.N. delegation on Saturday in Lumphat district’s Seda commune.

Mr. Thy said border police found a second group of five people on Saturday night in O’Yadau district’s Yatong commune. He added that police then sent the group to provincial authorities, before they were handed over to the U.N. later that night.

“Provincial police chief [Nguon Koeun] handed eight Montagnard refugees to the U.N. at about 7 p.m. and they handed another group of five people at about 9 p.m.,” he said today.

“The Montagnard refugees this morning are on their way to Phnom Penh in a U.N. vehicle, escorted by a police vehicle with a siren,” he added.

Mr. Koeun, the provincial police chief, confirmed today that he had handed the asylum seekers to the U.N. on Saturday night.

“We agreed to hand over the 13 people to the U.N. because they showed us identity [documents] for those people,” he said.

The 13 Montagnards, an indigenous group concentrated in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, have said they are fleeing persecution at the hands of the Vietnamese government.

Since the asylum seekers arrived in Cambodia, a group of Cambodian Jarai—one of the about 30 tribes that make up the Montagnards—have been hiding them in a forest in Ratanakkiri’s Lumphat district.

Singapore firm pulls out of planned land deal at Boeung Kak

20 Dec

By: Daniel de Carteret and Chan Muyhong, Phnom Penh Post, 20 December 2014

Buildings are demolished by excavators during forced evictions at the Boeung Kak lake. Touch Yin Vannithy

Developer HLH walks away from $14.9 million deal for 1.3 hectares at controversial site. It’s not a setback, Shukaku says

Singapore-listed developer HLH, which had entered into an agreement to purchase 1.3 hectares of land at Boeung Kak lake has withdrawn from the deal, according a company statement.

A deal worth $14.9 million was struck between HLH and Cambodian developer Shukaku on June 19 for the purchase of the land at the controversial Boeung Kak lake site, with the intention to develop the area into business and shopping hub. But a December 17 statement from HLH posted on the Singapore stock exchange says the deal is now off.

“The Board wishes to announce that the seller and the buyer have mutually agreed and entered into a termination agreement on 16 December 2014 to terminate the SPA (Sales and Purchase Agreement) due to commercial reasons, strictly without any liability or breach of either party,” the announcement reads, without going into further detail.

A deposit of $1.46 million has been returned to HLH, the statement says.

HLH did not respond to a request for comment yesterday, but the firm’s executive deputy chairman and chief executive Johnny Ong Bee Huat had previously said that the company needed to complete a due diligence process before the deal could be finalised.

Shukaku, chaired by ruling Cambodian People’s Party Senator Lao Meng Khin, was awarded a 99-year lease of more than 100 hectares in the area in 2007, and soon after began filling in Boeung Kak lake with sand.

The lake has been the site of years-long protests, with some 20,000 people forced from their homes.

Last month, seven women were sentenced to one year in jail after they blocked the road outside City Hall in protest against the regular flooding of their homes, which are located close to the development site.

In August, protestors demonstrated at the Singaporean Embassy in protest of the HLH land purchase they say was in conflict with the government’s agreement with Shukaku to develop the land.

Boeung Kak representative Chan Puthisak yesterday congratulated HLH on their decision to pull out of the land purchase, suggesting the community’s activism played a role.

“The company [HLH] may not know that Shukaku cannot sell the land before they entered into the purchase agreement, but after the demonstration, they now know and they terminate it,” he said.

“It shows they are responsible, transparent and a company compliant with international standards,” Puthisak said.

Prime Minister Hun Sen agreed in 2011 to carve out 12.44 hectares of Shukaku’s concession for evictees, yet dozens of families are still awaiting land titles from City Hall.

“We are not banning any development on the site, we just ask for transparency from the development. Any deal [between Shukaku] should be temporarily paused until [there is] settlement for Boeung Kak residents,” Puthisak added.

The withdrawal of HLH comes just weeks after Shukaku announced that the company is ramping up development at Boeung Kak lake, with plans for their Phnom Penh City Centre project – an “eco-city” set to include hotels, housing, a business centre and more.

“There are no financial issues, and the main projects are well under way and on schedule,” Amu Pillay, the company’s head of corporate communications and public relations told the Post on December 2.

“The construction of drainage work will start in [December] 2014. The entire drainage works is expected to complete by 2017.”

Pillay acknowledged at the time that the firm could have also better managed the relocation process, but the firm was now focused on the benefits the project would bring – including jobs and park space for the community.

Contacted yesterday, Pillay did not elaborate further on the reasons for the HLH withdrawal apart from saying: “The termination of this agreement will not pose a setback to the development of the project.”

 

Fear motivating relocation

19 Dec

By: Phak Seangly, Phnom Penh Post, 19 December 2014

Workers construct the framework of foundations at the Lower Sesan II dam construction site in Stung Treng’s Sesan district on Tuesday. Phak Seangly

Deep in the forest, about an hour from Stung Treng’s provincial capital through a rough and difficult road, just over half of the houses in an ethnic minority village have been tagged with bright orange spray paint saying, “LSS2”.

The houses are marked if the family agrees to relocate from an area Cambodia’s largest hydropower dam to date, the Lower Sesan 2, is set to flood.

According to a 2010 environmental impact assessment, the 400-megawatt dam will destroy five villages and displace about 5,000 people.

“Those who agreed to leave do not want to leave, because they already have houses, farmland and crops here. But they are worried about the future when the flood comes. They do not want the new location, but they have to go because of the dam,” said Kru Yu, 63, chief of Kbal Romea village where the houses have been tagged with orange paint.

In a monthlong survey of 374 families in Kbal Romea, Sre Sranok and Chrob villages that was completed last week, provincial authorities found that 84 per cent of the residents have agreed to relocate.
But in Kbal Romea, a Phnong village, 40 per cent of the families still refuse to move.

“The people demanded a plot of 50 metres by 100 metres and not 20 metres by 50 metres, and we do not have compensation for our ancestors’ graveyards,” said Siek Mekong, chief of Srekor commune, which wasn’t part of the census.

When Mekong’s community held their own survey, they found that 90 per cent disagreed with the relocation plan because it didn’t meet their compensation needs.

The proposed relocation site, 20 kilometres from the national road, includes five hectares of farmland for each family along with the promise of houses that have yet to be built, although relocation is set to start early next year.

Developers of the $900 million dam project, financed partially by tycoon Kith Meng’s Royal Group, have also said they will build health centres, wells and schools for the villagers. But none of the infrastructure has yet materialised, though construction on the dam is well under way.

In July, villagers asked for a five-year delay on the project so a comprehensive relocation plan that took villagers’ concerns into account could be developed.

“We have paid much attention so that we ensure our people do not lose benefits, but their demands are too high to meet,” said Duong Pov, Stung Treng provincial administration director.

Kbal Romea villagers who have agreed to move said they did so out of resignation and fear. “We cannot win. The company and the government are close. They have power and we do not want them to abuse us like they do the Boeung Kak villagers [in Phnom Penh],” said Keo Thy, 37, who has agreed to leave her home.

For Thy’s neighbour, leaving means more than giving up his home and ancestral land.

Forty-eight-year-old Sean Choeun has earned his living through fishing, and at the relocation site, removed from the river, his family would have to find an alternative income.

“Everyone is very concerned about this dam plan, but I do not agree to go yet, so that I can see how high the flooding is . . . If it is too high, I will go,” he said.

But fisherman living downstream of the relocation sites who do not fall under the proposed compensation plan, warned that the dam may sound a death knell to living off the river.

“We will face floods when they open the dam, but when the dam is closed, we cannot catch a single fish and will face toxic chemical substances and some species will be extinct,” said Loa ethnic villager Phao May.

May pointed to where the company was filling soil and pumping water out before constructing the foundation of the dam.

“When I see that, I feel sorry for the loss of the natural scenery, biodiversity and ecosystem,” May said.

 

Refugee limbo: Montagnard mission still languishing

19 Dec

By: Kevin Ponniah and Chhay Channyda, Phnom Penh Post, 19 December 2014

UN officials are still being blocked by provincial authorities from visiting a group of 13 desperate Montagnard asylum seekers hiding in the jungles of Ratanakkiri, more than a week after officials travelled to the northeastern province for a second time.

Provincial authorities have denied a joint delegation of UN and Immigration Department officials access to the group, citing the need for letters of permission from the central government in order to work with them.

Chhay Thy of rights group Adhoc said the asylum seekers were asking the UN to defy the government, as they believe police are trying to find and deport them first. “They want UN officials to come alone without the authorities. They are in need of the UN’s help because they are facing food shortages and disease,” he said.

When asked yesterday why the UN needed government permission to meet the group, Wan-Hea Lee, the UN rights representative, suggested “the question should be posed to the [government] authorities who claim it is needed”.

“For OHCHR, it is a practical matter. We did not wish to place them at risk of arrest or refoulement.”

Neither the Ministry of Interior nor the provincial governor could be reached yesterday.

Gov’t Accepts Request for Law to Ban Monks Voting

19 Dec

By: Ouch Sony, The Cambodia Daily, December 19, 2014

The government on Thursday formally accepted a request from Cambodia’s top Buddhist monks to consider drafting a law that would ban the country’s more than 50,000 monks from voting.

At the start of the annual two-day meeting of top monks in Phnom Penh on Wednesday, the leaders of both major Buddhist sects in Cambodia asked the government to draft a law that would make it illegal for monks to cast ballots, endorse a political party or otherwise take part in election activities.

At the end of the meeting Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Men Sam An, the minister of National Assembly-Senate relations and inspection, agreed to pass the request on for consideration.

“I would like to accept this request and will pass it to the head of the government to inspect and decide,” said Ms. Sam An, who is also a lawmaker for the ruling CPP.

The request from the Buddhist leaders follows a year in which a small but growing number of monks have grown increasingly vocal in their critique of CPP rule, often joining and leading protests against government policies and practices.

The Constitution currently guarantees the right to vote for all Cambodian citizens 18 years old and above.

Monks Turn Over Alms Bowls to Protest Jailing of Activists

19 Dec

By: Mech Dara, The Cambodia Daily, December 19, 2014

A group of monks Thursday overturned their alms bowls outside the Ministry of Justice in Phnom Penh in symbolic protest against the recent imprisonment of 18 activists, opposition figures and fellow monks.

More than 100 monks and activists first demonstrated outside the National Assembly at about 8 a.m. Thursday, frustrated that a petition submitted to the assembly last month went unanswered, before marching to the Justice Ministry with the hope of handing the document to Justice Minister Ang Vong Vattana. The petition calls for the release of the 18.

Monks overturn their alms bowls in protest outside the Justice Ministry in Phnom Penh on Thursday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Monks overturn their alms bowls in protest outside the Justice Ministry in Phnom Penh on Thursday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

“Our aim today is to meet Ang Vong Vattana and for him to come out and take the petition to show that the Ministry of Justice can find justice for the people,” monk Hour Sophath said.

When Mr. Vong Vattana failed to appear over the next two hours, some 40 monks turned their alms bowls upside down, a powerful gesture of defiance indicating they would refuse to accept handouts from the minister.

“The top of the bowl is white to represent justice while the bottom is black to represent injustice, therefore we turned our bowls upside down to illustrate how our country is full of injustice and our people continue to suffer,” Hour Sophath offered as a secondary explanation for the gesture.

During anti-government protests in Burma in 2007, many monks turned their alms bowls upside down and refused to accept donations from members of the military government.

In a 2008 journal article, Ingrid Jordt, a scholar of Buddhism who focuses on Burma, explained the significance of the act of refusing to accept alms, calling it “the ultimate moral rebuke.”

“To refuse to accept someone’s donation is to deny that person the opportunity to earn merit,” she wrote of the act, known in Pali as “patam nikkujjana kamma.” “Merit is a moral condition that produces real world power and felicitous circumstances in one’s future life.”

Kim Santepheap, spokesman for the Justice Ministry, said by telephone afterward, however, that representatives of the protesters had declined an invitation to enter the ministry.

“The ministry sent representatives to receive the petition, but they did not hand it over and the ministry also invited [the protesters’] representatives to come inside…but they did not,” he said.

After overturning their alms bowls, the group continued on to the Royal Palace, where a representative of the palace promised to pass the petition along to King Norodom Sihamoni.

Thursday’s demonstration was just the latest calling for the release of the 18 people, all of whom are currently being held at Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison.

 

Clergy Seeks Law to Ban Monks From Voting

18 Dec

By: Ouch Sony and Zsombor Peter, The Cambodia Daily, December 18, 2014

Tep Vong, the great supreme patriarch of Cambodia’s Mohanikaya Buddhist sect, renewed his call Wednesday for monks not to vote or otherwise take part in the country’s elections, this time urging the government to put the restrictions into law.

Speaking at the annual gathering of the country’s top monks in Phnom Penh, Tep Vong said the legislation was necessary to protect the national religion’s hallowed image.

A monk raises his arms— in solidarity with a group of protesters who claimed to have been prevented from voting—after casting his ballot at a pagoda-turned-polling-station in Phnom Penh's Meanchey district during last year's national election. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

A monk raises his arms— in solidarity with a group of protesters who claimed to have been prevented from voting—after casting his ballot at a pagoda-turned-polling-station in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district during last year’s national election. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

 

“I…ask the relevant establishments, the National Assembly, the Senate, the government and all political parties, to please create procedures to make the ordained monks and novice monks stay neutral…[and] avoid participating in activities that support or oppose any political party and participating in elections,” he said.

Tep Vong, previously a senior member of the ruling CPP, has in the past issued personal orders forbidding the country’s more than 50,000 monks from voting. His new call for a law follows elections last year in which hundreds of monks campaigned openly for the opposition CNRP, which officially lost but came within seven parliamentary seats of victory.

On Wednesday, just before requesting the voting ban, the Buddhist patriarch accused a few monks of threatening to drag the religion into disrepute.

“While there is progress,” he said, “we also see some weak points in the practices of a small number of monks who lack understanding, which seriously harms the respect for Buddhism and state law and leads the people to lose their belief.”

Bou Kry, supreme patriarch of the country’s smaller Dhammayuth sect, endorsed the call for a voting ban at the meeting.

Chhoeng Bunchhea, deputy director-general of Buddhist education for the Mohanikaya sect, who also attended the meeting, said afterward that Cambodia needed the law to maintain peace.

“If monks favor one side, they will lose their neutrality. That is why we ask the National Assembly to create a law for the monks,” he said. “When monks can vote, they will use that right to protest when votes are lost. They will participate with other people, and that can lead to violence.”

On election day last year, a brief but fiery riot broke out at a polling station in Phnom Penh after a young man allegedly assaulted a monk who was protesting against problems with the site’s voter list.

CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun, spokesman for the National Assembly, said he welcomed the patriarch’s call for a law.

“If there is a request for the monks to stay neutral and ban them from voting, I support it,” he said.

Mr. Vun said the timing of the request was also fortuitous, with the CPP and CNRP set to negotiate an overhaul of the country’s election laws.

The opposition, however, saw things differently.

Son Chhay, a senior lawmaker for the CNRP, said it was Tep Vong who was taking sides, by demanding that monks’ right to cast a ballot be taken away.

He said the Buddhist leader was merely doing the bidding of the CPP, which may be worried that its grip on the country’s pagodas will no longer be enough to keep the monks who live in them in line.

“The CPP has been trying to control the pagodas and all the monks, but I think they can no longer control them,” he said. “They control the pagodas, but they can no longer control the monks.”

Mr. Chhay said legally barring monks from voting would also take more than a few tweaks to the election laws. With the right to vote for every Cambodian citizen 18 years old and older enshrined in the Constitution, he said, it would take nothing less than a constitutional amendment.

And that would take a two-thirds vote in the National Assembly. With the CPP well shy of controlling that many of the Assembly’s seats, Mr. Chhay said an amendment taking the right to vote away from monks was not likely to pass.

“The CPP is no longer able to do what they please anymore, and the CNRP, we are in the position of supporting the rights of all people, and I doubt we would support this.”

Among the most vocal CPP critics in the clergy’s ranks in the past two years has been But Buntenh, who founded the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice as a counterpoint to a Buddhist establishment.

Like Mr. Chhay, he called Tep Vong a puppet of the ruling party.

“This kind of idea comes from the ruling party,” he said of the patriarch’s call for monks to be barred from the ballot. “The ruling party knows very well that if it allows the monks to keep voting, it will not be the winner.”

And more than the monks alone, he said, the CPP fears that the public support of monks for other parties will sway the population.

As for the standard complaint from the government and Buddhist leaders that activist monks threaten the country’s social order, But Buntenh said he and his cohorts were trying to set Cambodia back on the true Buddhist path—not stray from it—and that voting for the “right” leader was a part of that.

“We are trying to have a person who has a high quality of virtue,” he said.

“I suggest the government should not look only at the political interest but look at the interest of the people and look at the interest of the whole country.”

Slight progress on dispute between villagers, OCIC

18 Dec

By: Khouth Sophak Chakrya, Phnom Penh Post, 18 December 2014

Villagers in the capital’s Chroy Changvar district have cautiously accepted a plan to build roads through their community following a meeting yesterday with the developer of a huge satellite city planned for the area.

Nan Ony, legal officer at the Housing Rights Task Force (HRTF), who was with villagers at the meeting with the Overseas Cambodian Investment Company (OCIC) yesterday, said the more than 200 families now supported the project because they believed they would reap the benefits.

“However, the size and length of the new roads and the compensation arrangements have not been discussed yet,” he said.

The planned roads will be built next to National Road 6 and through the planned satellite city, where residents have been in a land dispute with OCIC for several years.

The 387-hectare satellite city project will cost $1.6 billion, and villagers there claim to have lived on the land since before the 1993 UNTAC elections.

Chheng Yeun, a representative of the Prek Leap community, said the company had said it would link the roads to the highway, although the details of the plan had not been unanimously agreed upon.

“Our people agree with the new development plan, but we want measuring and evaluation on the effect of the plan first, including the compensation, before starting to clear the land,” he said. “Doing that would help to avoid conflict between the people, authorities and the company in the future.”

Klaing Huoth, Chroy Changva district governor, yesterday heaped praise on the company’s plans, which he said would help to alleviate traffic in the city centre.

“We do not know clearly how much the company can do to build these new roads,” he said. “But we want a big one and the longer the better, in our view.”

“If, after the assessment is done, it is pointed out that there are many people affected, the company and Phnom Penh municipality will relocate the [roads],” he said, adding that a team had already begun to measure the site of the planned new bypass following yesterday’s meeting.

Touch Samnang, OCIC project manager, said that the plans for the bypass would go ahead and it would stretch for 6 kilometres to National Road 6.

Last month, villagers who had not signed relocation agreements with the company received a new compensation offer from OCIC which would allow them to keep only 10 per cent of their land, a proposal that HRTF’s Ony said had “deeply disappointed” them.

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