Thousands of Hectares of State Land Privatized in Latest Decrees

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A large haul of land was privatized by the government and handed over to well-connected individuals, according to the latest Royal Decrees released on October 18, 2021.

Seventeen decrees within the span of a month have privatized 5,000 hectares — nine plots on Phnom Penh’s Boeng Tamok lake, benefiting several military commanders; hundreds of hectares near the disputed, under-construction new international airport; and the whole of central Kep.

The documents, released on Monday and all signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen, are dated between August 4 and September 2 and continue the recent flurry of land privatization across the country.

Last year, Hun Sen called for the privatization of protected areas for the benefit of poor families already living on the state land, but the land-grant drive has attracted skepticism from residents as many connected officials and tycoons have received land.

Notable recipients in the latest tranche of documents include military police commander Sao Sokha, armed forces commander-in-chief Vong Pisen, oknha Peng Chea, and Say Sorphea, the wife of a military commander who received her fifth and sixth plots on Boeng Tamok.

Some of the grants were to unspecified recipients. Two large reservoirs in Takeo province, near Phnom Penh’s new international airport being built in Kandal, were privatized, totaling 260 hectares. The “whole area” of central Kep was also privatized, without many details.

The state land being privatized included areas marked as forest cover and wildlife sanctuaries.

DateSizeProvinceNamesLand Type
August 4Kep
August 102 haPreah SihanoukPeng Chea, Vich HongForest
August 103.7 haBattambang44 families
August 12260 ha (two plots)TakeoReservoir
August 1215 haPhnom PenhNational PoliceBoeng Tamok lake
August 1318 haPhnom PenhNational PoliceBoeng Tamok lake
August 1412 haPreah SihanoukSeng KeangForest
August (date obscured by stamp)7 ha (two plots)Phnom PenhPheun Phy, Sum Phal, 23 familiesBoeng Tamok lake
August 19945 haTbong Khmum64 familiesFormer land concessions
August 193,164 haStung TrengFamilies without landBiodiversity area
August 1951 haPreah SihanoukFu Hai InvestmentForest
August 20262 haKampong Speu41 military familiesPhnom Oral Wildlife Sanctuary
August 2380 haSiem ReapTuy Puy, Sun Lin, Phou Sipha, 28 familiesForest
August 2636 haPhnom PenhSao Sokha, Vong Pisen, Ya Kim Y, Sear Sambath, Pov MengBoeng Tamok lake
September 148 ha (two plots)Phnom PenhSay SorpheaBoeng Tamok lake
September 24.4 haPhnom PenhLon NavyBoeng Tamok lake
September 228 haPhnom PenhLon Hak, Chhun ChanthyBoeng Tamok lake

The largest grant was over 3,000 hectares of a biodiversity area in Stung Treng, ostensibly earmarked for landless families.

Stung Treng provincial administration spokesperson Man Kong said all of the land will be given to around 300 poor families. They would be allowed to use the biodiversity area to farm and build houses to improve their living conditions, he said.

“In some areas it will affect natural protected areas too, but it is only a little,” Kong said. Sesan district, where the land allocation is located, was the poorest of the province’s five districts, he added.

“The local administrations hope that after distributing the land … it will help them earn incomes through their farming and other business, and hope it will improve infrastructure and public service to reach them.”

In Koh Kong province, which has seen the most sweeping land privatizations so far, residents earlier this year expressed deep skepticism about actually benefiting from the state program, pointing out that usually land just ends up in the hands of the rich.

Two areas that have seen well-connected individuals receive state land saw more grants in the latest documents: Phnom Penh’s Boeng Tamok, considered one of the city’s “last lakes” and vital to prevent flooding; and Preah Sihanouk province’s Prey Nob district, already carved up by elite landholders. A 36-hectare plot on the Phnom Penh lake was granted to military police commander Sokha, armed forces commander-in-chief Pisen, Defense Ministry official Ya Kim Y, military official Sear Sambath and a fifth individual, Pov Meng. Some of the plots overlapped with previous allocations.

Allocation of land at Phnom Penh’s Boeng Tamok, including new plots given to senior military officials. (Michael Dickison/VOD)

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said many land grants were to institutions that needed it, and those to individuals were part of deals to help with public development, a process he calls “using palm leaves to package palm sugar.”

The concessions to poor families would not end up in the hands of the rich, he added.

Asked about Sorphea, the wife of Brigade 70 deputy chief Phoeun Phalla, and whether officials able to receive state land were close to Hun Sen, Siphan said it was about public — not personal — interests.

“This is impossible,” he said of connections to Hun Sen being the motivation. “I do not believe that providing the land allocations is for the person. … It could be an exchange for the nation’s interest and needs.”

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