PREY NOB DISTRICT, Preah Sihanouk province — Touch Sony says she won’t leave her home for fear it will be reduced to a pile of rusting corrugated metal and wooden planks, decaying in the shallow water. Just like her neighbor’s home, which was dismantled by authorities about two months ago.
In June, a government sub-decree named Ly Arporn and Seng Nhak — the daughter and son-in-law of CPP Senator and businessman Ly Yong Phat — as the new owners of 600 hectares of land in Ream and Bit Traing communes, including Boeng Thom Angkep lake. The order claimed the state land and flooded forests were unused and not of public interest.
Lakeside residents disagree that it’s not being used. They said this month that they don’t have titles, but they’ve long claimed land in the area.
Sony, a 37-year-old mother of six, said authorities began tearing down houses around September. Authorities came several times to threaten them and even dismantled one neighbor’s home at about 8 p.m. one night, she said.
“The houses that are standing have people who stayed,” she said from her wooden deck, overlooking the ruins of her neighbors’ homes. “If they left, [authorities] cut down the house.”
“We have eyes on our backs, so we don’t dare to leave.”
She said she and her husband are not sure what they will do. At this point, she said she would accept a deal or hold out based on how her other neighbors respond.
Muoy Sai, a 65-year-old fisherman, said he had lived on the lake since before the Khmer Rouge regime, and returned when the regime was forced out.
“Here, we’re poor but the living is not difficult,” Sai said.
In the mornings, he can set a net out early in the morning and then take his coffee and wait for a catch. At the front of his house he has a small box-like net, where he raises fish for eating, and where his home’s dock meets the wraparound porch, he has a net in the water filled with dark crabs the size of guava. Those crabs can earn him 50,000 riel per kg ($12.50), while he can sell some saltwater shellfish for up to 200,000 riel per kg ($50).
When reporters docked a boat at his front porch, Sai came to the front door with masks and a large tube of alcohol sanitizer gel. The last person to make a house call was Doung Dara, an adviser to the Prime Minister who set off Covid-19 concerns in the area when he traveled to three coastal provinces just days after contact with Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto. Szijjarto had tested positive shortly after a one-day official visit to Cambodia last month.
Sai’s village, Ong Krao, was one of the stops on Dara’s tour of coastal provinces in order to manage land disputes, the elderly fisherman said. According to Sai, the adviser told villagers that they would inevitably be removed from their homes on the water, but the state would move them to a new area, where workers are currently setting up houses, roads and other infrastructure.
“The state wants our land for development,” he said. “We live on state land and there’s no title. Now the state needs it so they will change our plots.”
Sai said Dara took him and a few other villagers to see the resettlement area. The land was closer to schools and hospitals than their home on the lake, and the government developers could make some adjustments if the incoming residents asked, but Sai says he believes his livelihood will be worse off in the new location.
The residents already living near the new site told Sai and the others that they could fish, but Sai said he can already tell they don’t find as much fish.
“We cannot complain — we’re just people,” he said. “I do not dare to speak out. We just want peace, and now it’s not very peaceful.”
When asked by a reporter about Boeng Thom Angkep, Dara said he was busy and hung up the phone. Government spokesperson Phay Siphan said on Wednesday that similar land deals were about spurring development, and was common practice in many countries.
Arporn and Nhak, who are the directors of borey complex the Premier Land in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district, registered a company called Premier Land Sihanoukville in 2019, but the Premier Land’s limited advertising includes no references to Preah Sihanouk province.
Multiple calls and emails to the company went unanswered. When a reporter called Premier Land’s office in Phnom Penh, a representative said he was the only person in the office, and that he did not know about any developments in Preah Sihanouk province.
As one of Yong Phat’s children, Arporn is a stakeholder in at least 13 of the group’s associated companies, including L.Y.P. Group, the Garden City Development satellite project in Phnom Penh, media company P.N.N., import-export and sand mining company Hero King, and Koh Kong SEZ.
Aside from the Premier Land companies, her husband, Nhak, directs Phnom Penh Sugar, which has been accused of violent land evictions and employing child laborers, to the point that Cambodian sugar plantations were flagged by the E.U. for human rights abuses.
Like the couple, Yong Phat has been granted lucrative land deals in areas that otherwise were designated state land or protected area via sub decree. In 2010, the tycoon was given a 10,000 hectare concession in Koh Kong province, of which more than 40 percent is within Botum Sakor National Park. Yong Phat’s wife and a listed director on several L.Y.P. subsidiaries, Kim Heang, was given via sub decree 30 hectares of Boeng Tamok — a lake and therefore automatically designated state private land — in exchange for 9.8 hectares in the capital. And last year, Yong Phat was granted the opportunity to develop Koh Kong Krao, an island whose protection has been a rallying point for young environmental activists.
Yong Phat has been known for his close relationship with Prime Minister Hun Sen, partially funding the Win-Win Monument celebrating the premier’s history in overcoming the Khmer Rouge on his satellite city development area on the outskirts of the capital. Arporn herself directs the company Vina (H.K.) — described as a company with hotel and restaurant services — alongside the prime minister’s daughter Hun Mana.
A Bangkok-based real estate company, Angel Real Estate, posted a listing for a hotel and casino on Boeng Thom Angkep called the Premier Lake and Casino, but the company did not respond to questions for further information about the lake.
The listing appeared to be removed from Angel Real Estate after a reporter emailed the company about the property.
Sai, the fisherman, said he could see that the land below his lake was worth millions, so he does not feel he has a chance at holding onto his home, and his peaceful life on the water.
The area’s environment had been guarded by authorities for years, he said, but now it seemed it was just to preserve it for one of them to turn it into a development.
“You just try to cut one tree, and you cannot go [cut it],” he said. “The environment officials protect the land for businesses and excellencies.”