Communes Meet as Private Projects Begin Building on State Lakes, Forests

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The four communes that met about residents living on state land.(Michael Dickison/VOD)

Four commune administrations in Takeo province — including two containing controversial developments in Phnom Tamao forest — gathered Wednesday morning over local residents living on state land, an official said.

Clearing began in recent days in the beloved Phnom Tamao forest, which spans more than 2,000 hectares and contains a wildlife rescue center in one corner. Most of the rest of it has been privatized for tycoons including Leng Navatra and Khun Sea, according to documents and the country’s agriculture minister.

Nearby Tonle Bati lake, a popular weekend getaway, is also slated for development.

On Wednesday, administrators from the communes of Doung, Kandoeng, Kraing Thnong and Peaream, all in Bati district, met at the Takeo provincial hall, according to officials. Most, however, denied that there were any residents potentially affected.

Houses and a pagoda on the banks of Tonle Bati in a photo from June 31, 2022.
Houses and a pagoda on the banks of Tonle Bati in a photo from June 31, 2022. (Kuoy Langdy/VOD)

Kraing Thnong commune chief Chin Im said the meeting was about Agriculture Ministry land, and acknowledged that 222 hectares of Tonle Bati lake had been transferred to an individual. But no residents were affected, he said.

“They want to research whether people are using land under [state] management. But we don’t have any [such case],” Im said.

Kandoeng commune chief Srey Sombo also said his area had no one using state land, including in the parts of Phnom Tamao forest now being razed.

A letter circulating on social media on Wednesday showed China Poipet Satellite City asking the Takeo provincial administration for security as it cleared Phnom Tamao forest. Tycoon Navatra is a former director of China Poipet Satellite City.

However, Takeo provincial spokesperson Meas Uy said he didn’t know about this request, while a staff member who answered a phone number for China Poipet Satellite City said he worked for Navatra’s “Galaxy” companies in Poipet but could not give information, and refused to provide further contacts.

Online, the destruction of Phnom Tamao has sparked dozens of social media posts under the tags #SavePhnomTamao and #BoycottNavatra. One such post was shared over 11,000 times as of 5:30 p.m.

The other communes in Wednesday’s meeting said residents were expected to be affected by other developments.

Peaream commune chief Vong Vang said tycoon Pung Kheav Se — who is behind the new airport project nearby as well as Phnom Penh’s Koh Pich and other controversial developments — was planning a development on 160 hectares of former state land in his jurisdiction.

About 115 families currently depended on the land, but the area would be developed based on the government’s plan, Vang said. “We are speechless,” he said. He added that three other districts in Takeo had held similar meetings on Wednesday.

Doung commune chief Nhop Touch said there were families living on around 100 hectares of state land in his area, and the commune was not allowed to issue land titles for them. However, he did not know how many families lived there, and ended the call before a reporter could ask whether there were development plans for the land.

Bati district governor Phoun Chhim declined to comment on the residents on state land in Kraing Thnong commune but only said that commune, district and provincial officials were in attendance.

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