COMMUNE officials in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak lake area are intentionally inflating the number of families affected by a massive development project in order to pocket compensation payments, Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema alleged Thursday.
In a meeting with provincial governors addressing controversial guidelines on so-called temporary settlements, Kep Chuktema claimed corrupt commune officials are hindering efforts to relocate residents living on disputed land by adding non-existent “ghost families” to the actual number of those affected.
“They add in ghost families,” the governor said.
“If there are only 100 families living in their commune, they report to us that there are 140 families.”
Kep Chuktema cited the Boeung Kak lake real estate development as an example, charging that some commune officials in the area are eager to claim promised compensation funds.
“When we started to develop Boeung Kak, the number of families increased because of our policy to provide US$8,000 and 2 million riels (about US$476) in compensation,” he said.
With this money, he added, “It’s not hard for a commune chief to get a Land Cruiser.”
Kep Chuktema said he had already sacked one commune official for listing “ghost families”, though he did not give a name.
“I am so hurt,” he said. “I did not fire my commune chief. But I fired my commune councillor. This is the experience I have.”
Many of the villages affected by the lake development are in Daun Penh district’s Srah Chak commune, which forms a crescent around the lake from the southwest to the north.
The commune’s deputy chief, In Saphan, who is in charge of Boeung Kak lake issues for the commune, declined to comment about the governor’s “ghost families” claim.
“I don’t know about what the Phnom Penh governor said because I did not attend the meeting,” she said.
Housing rights advocates, as well as villagers who stand to be affected by the 133-hectare development say they have heard similar allegations before.
Be Pharom, who lives in the commune’s Village 22, said she had heard of officials trying to inflate the number of families living near her, though she did not name anyone in particular.
“If we have one family, they increase it to two or three families,” she said.
Sia Phearum, secretariat director of the Housing Rights Task Force, said he, too, has heard villagers report claims of inflated numbers. But he said it is unclear how often this is done.
Rights workers say roughly 4,200 Boeung Kak families are facing eviction. But Sia Phearum said that is the government’s statistic, and that rights workers have not taken their own tally.
Also during Thursday’s meeting, provincial governors and land-management officials discussed the implementation of guidelines for removing “temporary settlements” that have been “illegally occupied” in urban areas.
The Council of Ministers approved the guidelines last month. Officials say they were drafted to assist in dealing with communities settled after the Khmer Rouge fell from power.
The guidelines cover how population data must be collected by local officials; how sites must be mapped and classified; and how authorities must install basic infrastructure and ensure access to education, healthcare and employment opportunities.
Rights groups have expressed concern that the guidelines could be used as a legal justification for evictions.
“Villagers who live illegally on state land have been living there for a long time,” said Chan Soveth, a senior investigator for the rights group Adhoc. “The government should be responsible for them.”
Officials at Thursday’s meeting, however, defended the government’s eviction policies, and took issue with the use of the word itself.
“Our government can not accept the word ‘eviction’. Only during the Pol Pot regime did they evict,” said Minister of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction Im Chhun Lim.
She added that she believes the practice could make it harder for families actually living on the land to reach an agreement with City Hall because it drags out the process of securing compensation.
Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for the rights group Licadho, said villagers frequently report claims of “ghost families” appearing on official tallies.
“We always urge authorities to get clear statistics first before relocating people to new relocation sites,” he said. “We don’t want authorities to profit while people suffer.”