Marking another milestone in the years-long struggle between the government and the families of Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak community, Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema handed out 254 land titles to lakeside residents at City Hall on Saturday.
But with the government shrouding the titling process in mystery, and nearly 100 families still contesting a decision to cut them out of the process altogether, the moment was bittersweet.
“This is your property. Now you can do whatever you want,” Mr. Chuktema told approximately 300 residents of Boeng Kak gathered inside City Hall before personally handing over the first 18 titles himself.
The families have been crying foul ever since City Hall awarded a 99-year lease for the area to CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin and his Shukaku Inc real estate firm in 2007. NGOs say the deal was illegal because it denied the 4,000 families already living there the chance to lay legal claim to the land themselves. But faced with the threat of being forced out empty-handed, most of those families eventually took the modest compensation on offer and left.
By the time Prime Minister Hun Sen intervened in August with an order that 12.44 hectares be cut out of the project and the families inside be given land titles so they could stay, fewer than 1,000 of them were left.
Of those, fewer than 800 have been allowed to actually apply for titles. At yesterday’s ceremony, Mr Chuktema said the last of them would get their titles by Jan. 7, in time to mark the day in 1979 when Vietnamese-backed guerillas toppled the Khmer Rouge.
“These land titles are very important. They are your titles,” said Chhay Rithisen, director of land management for the city. “You have the legal right to pawn it to get money for starting a business. You can give it as a gift, or sell it, or you can give it as an inheritance to your children and grandchildren.”
Among those picking up titles Saturday was Vong Sok Heng, who had taken part in the frequent-and sometimes violently dispersed-demonstrations the Boeng Kak families have held to protest their pending evictions.
“This land title is very important for me. It is our life,” she said. “Now that we have it we don’t have to worry about anything. Before…we worried about eviction.”
“I am very happy to get it. Now we can live on our land forever,” echoed Ros Sreyneang, who also picked up a land title.
They were the lucky ones. Heng Mom is among the nearly 100 families who never left the lake but found themselves excluded from the prime minister’s plan for land titles. Local authorities decided they lived just outside the 12.44 hectares set aside for the plan, even though they have never made it clear exactly where the border lies.
Ms. Mom watched Shukaku bulldozers raze her modest home in October but has vowed to fight on.
“We still fight to demand land titles,” she said yesterday.
“We will not give up. We should receive the land title because we live there legally. We have ID cards and a family book,” she said, referring to the official documents signed off by commune and district authorities that list a household’s members and declares their official address.
Making it all the harder to bear are the titles inside the 12.44 hectares going right back to Mr. Meng Khin. When the first list of title applicants was posted in September, Mr Meng Khin’s name appeared more than 20 times.
“It is not right that they provide land titles to Lao Meng Khin but not to us,” said Nget Khun, who has also been cut out of the titling plan.
On Saturday, Mr. Chuktema said the senator bought the plots off of Boeng Kak families fairly.
“It’s right when he buys it from them. It becomes his land,” he said.
Speaking with reporters after the ceremony, though, Mr Chuktema refused to say exactly how many plots the senator would get. And when some Boeng Kak families tried taking photos of an updated list of applicants a few weeks ago, authorities temporarily confiscated the camera and detained three people on the pretext that they had not been invited.
“We feel that it’s not a transparent process,” said Sia Phearum, secretariat director of the Housing Rights Task Force. “We don’t know how many land titles went to Lao Meng Khin because it is secret information.”
And with Shukaku’s pumps continuing to pour sand into the homes of families well inside the 12.44-hectare area, he said the pressure was still on for them to leave.
While the titles City Hall handed out were a welcome move toward a solution for the families, Mr. Phearum said, Saturday “was just the first step.”
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)
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