Ex-Governor, Property Tycoon Receive Privatized State Land

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Leng Navatra holds up longan as part of his efforts to procure the fruit from farmers, in a photograph posted to his Facebook page earlier this month.
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A former Pailin governor and a real estate developer have received land that was formerly designated as state forest but had already been cleared, cultivated and sold by individuals, local officials said.

In Siem Reap province, Leng Pheaktra received 172 hectares in Banteay Srei district’s Romchek commune, according to a sub-decree dated July 23 and released last week. The land was privatized from its former classification as forest cover, the decree says.

Pheaktra is director of the Galaxy Navatra Group, Galaxy Navatra Investment and China Poipet Satellite City. In 2018, he was given the title of oknha, a designation for individuals who donate at least $500,000 to the state, according to a decree dated July 6 of that year. This year, he was made neak oknha, a higher-status oknha, in a sub-decree dated January 22.

His Galaxy companies produce music videos and build borey housing developments, and have financial and retail arms.

Ly Samrith, spokesperson for the Siem Reap provincial administration, said he did not know what was planned on the land, but Pheaktra had already purchased it from locals.

“The land has no forest, and people have cultivated on that land for many years, and transferred and bought and sold many times,” Samrith said.

A woman who picked up a listed phone number for Pheaktra said she did not know about the land grant and asked that questions be sent through Facebook. The Facebook page for Leng Navatra — the name Pheaktra uses publicly — has not yet responded to questions.

Pheaktra has donated millions of dollars and material support for the government fight against Covid-19 and more recently worked with the military to acquire longan from Pailin farmers after Thailand imposed an import ban.

In a separate decree, the government granted 136 hectares in Kampot province to Phan Chanthul and the Prekthnot 171 (Kampot) Development company. The decree says Chanthul is the company’s director, though he is not listed as such under Commerce Ministry records.

Some 73 hectares of the allocation is forest cover in the Bokor National Park, and is located near the Kampot coast. The land is in Prek Tnoat commune, formerly in Toek Chhou district and this year moved to the newly formed Bokor city.

Commune chief Kong Bunrea said he did not know the plans for the area, though it was one of three major companies developing in the area. The land had already been occupied and de facto privatized, he said.

“[He] had bought and sold and transferred, and [we] gave the rights to him,” Bunrea said, adding that Chanthul was formerly the governor of Pailin province. Chanthul could not be reached for comment on Friday.

Chanthul was replaced as governor in December and was reportedly transferred to the Interior Ministry as an undersecretary of state.

The government has been privatizing hundreds of thousands of hectares of state land, a large part of it in protected areas, after Prime Minister Hun Sen last year called for poorer residents living on public land to be given land titles. Many have expressed concern that the privatized land would merely end up in the hands of wealthy developers and land traders.

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