A tycoon implicated in a land dispute involving a massive new airport in Kandal province defended her claims to the land yesterday, one week after the US Embassy cancelled her visa in connection with the dispute.
Seang Chanheng, who holds the royally bestowed title of “oknha”, said villagers had moved onto her land in Kandal Stung district more than five years after she first purchased it, denying villagers’ claims that they have lived there since the 1980s and ’90s.
“They always accuse me of being rich because I rob other people’s property and cheat people,” Chanheng said. “They accuse me of getting the land titles from colluding with other people.”
Since the government announced the construction of a massive airport and mixed-use development on 2,600 hectares in the area, disputes over the land in Kandal Stung district have erupted.
Several high-ranking officials who own land in the vicinity – including Minister of Tourism Thong Khon, three-star General Duong Heng, Deputy Phnom Penh Governor Koet Chhe and Phnom Penh Police Chief Chuon Sovann – are locked in disputes with a variety of companies.
However, the longest-running dispute is between Chanheng and the residents of the villages called Point 92, Point 93 and Point 94.
“She says whatever she wants,” said rice farmer Uong Sim, who is among 292 families who say they arrived in the area more than 20 years ago, long before Heng Development Co began claiming the land.
After winning court cases in 2006 and 2007 and receiving temporary land titles from local land management authorities, villagers say the authorities did not follow through with providing official titles to the land.
“People do not accept what she said, because in the past she only claimed 42 titles,” Sim said. “She did not have land titles that overlapped with our land . . . And if any company comes to measure our land, we will not allow it.”
Chanheng, however, claimed the verdicts granting the land to villagers were overturned after measurements showed that the villagers were living on her land, as evidenced by land titles in her name.
Chanheng also said she herself was the victim of land grabbing after the Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that 1,000 hectares of land in Kandal Stung and Takhmao in fact belonged to another oknha, Huot Vanthan, who claimed he had previously purchased the land.
She and Sovann, the police chief, are filing a separate claim to contest that decision, she said. “I must demand it because it is my flesh and blood,” Chanheng said. “I have suffered and I have borrowed money [for that land].”
Ministry of Land Management spokesman Seng Lot could not be reached yesterday and a contact for Vanthan was unavailable.
Shortly after The Post wrote an article earlier this month about the long-running land dispute, the US Embassy cancelled her visa for an upcoming trip, according to Chanheng.
“They interviewed me for an hour, like you are interviewing me now, about whether I took people’s land, about how people filed complaints and other things,” Chanheng said. “After I finished speaking, they said sorry and that they cancelled my visa.”
Embassy spokesman Arend Zwartjes declined to comment yesterday.
The US government cancels visas for a variety of reasons, including fraud or failing to disclose a prior conviction. Chanheng was convicted of forging land titles in Kampong Chhnang last year, a finding that was revealed in The Post article.
Chanheng, however, brushed off the decision and said it allowed her more time to prepare for an elaborate four-hour ceremony held yesterday for her mother’s birthday, which involved 200 monks and hundreds more dancers and performers. Dozens of local journalists, Military Police and traffic police were also in attendance and accepted cash and gifts.
Sweden-based land rights expert Rhodri Williams, who has studied land disputes in Cambodia, said haphazard implementation of Cambodia’s modern land rights system has left the country riddled with land disputes, often between elites with legal claims and villagers who have resided on the land for years and have unofficial claims from local authorities.
The resulting ambiguity, and weak rule of law, has meant that those with more money often win out, according to Williams. “It is relatively easy for people with the right connections to produce documentation,” Williams said. “The problem is that so often in Cambodia it comes down to a question of who is more powerful.”