Sihanoukville — A family dispute over the ownership of a highly valuable plot of land in Sihanoukville has pitched an 84-year-old matriarch against her 61-year-old daughter, creating a family drama that has captured the attention of many Cambodian social media users.
The family members have sued each other and on March 8 the Sihanoukville Provincial Court ordered a family shop on the land closed down pending a final decision in the case.
In emotional scenes that were shared on Facebook, the octogenarian named Han Kak is seen crying in the shop and holding a portrait of Prime Minister Hun Sen, pleading with him to intervene in the court case to stop her daughter Deng Ang.
‘Mother, who dares to evict her?’
The video and photos provoked strong reactions from Facebook users in Cambodia, where respect for family elders is sacrosanct. The images were widely shared and watched, with many shocked Facebook users condemning Deng Ang’s confrontation with her elderly mother.
“She is the mother, who dares to evict her?” commented one Facebook user named Ginger Love. “Don’t make money bigger than mother. Money can be earned, but a mother [you] can’t [buy] if you have money,” said another.
“[How] could there be such a beastly child? Why does the court in Sihanoukville not open a comprehensive investigation before implementing any judgment?” commented a user named Somaly Keo.
The 600-square-meter plot is located in the center of the port town, where land prices have soared up to $2,000 per square meter in recent years, making it potentially worth some $1.2 million.
Prices skyrocketed following a surge in Chinese investment in hotels and real estate to accommodate Chinese tourists, thousands of whom have flocked to Sihanoukville’s beaches, rowdy nightlife and casinos.
‘They secretly made the land title’
Han Kak, whose three other children support her claims, told VOA in a recent interview that she acquired the land in the 1980s and that her daughter Deng Ang and son-in-law had forged legal documents in 2016 that showed she gave them the land in return for financial compensation.
“They secretly made the land title that belongs to me without my permission,” Han Kak said. “It is my land, I don’t tell lies.” She sued her daughter in 2016 and now stays with two other daughters, who both own three-story buildings in Sihanoukville and one of whom ran the shop on Han Kak’s land that was ordered closed by the court.
In 2016 court documents, seen by VOA, Deng Ang denied the accusation and claimed she compensated her mother with an unspecified amount of “gold” for taking over the property.
Family land dispute
Land disputes are widespread in Cambodia, as most land tenure remains unregistered after the 1970s Khmer Rouge regime destroyed all land records, while economic growth and land investment greatly increased since the early 2000s.
Most often, the disagreements involve well-connected companies who are accused of seizing land from poor rural or urban communities. Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians have lost land and experienced rights violated through such disputes, according to rights groups, who claim that authorities and the courts often side with the wealthy businessmen.
The Sihanoukville dispute, however, erupted between family members when the land they owned became highly valuable.
In an interview with VOA, Deng Ang said her two sisters had been pushing their old mother to deny that she has sold the land and to sue her. She claimed her sisters had urged Han Kak to demand $180,000 from her in compensation for the land, a demand that she rejected.
The two younger daughters said Deng Ang was lying, adding that they also wanted a share of the valuable land and Han Kak wanted to give it to them.
“The mother… it is her land. She can decide whether she wants to distribute among the five children or not,” said Deng Vanna, 51, said, adding that they hoped the court would settle the case fairly.
Deng Ang decided to counter-sue under Cambodia’s Land Law and sought charges against her siblings for alleged violation of Article 253, which penalize the use of land without the consent of the owner. The charge carries a fine of up to $6,250 and a prison term of up to 2 years.
Court proceedings in the case continue and Sihanoukville Provincial Court spokesperson Lim Bunheng said he could not comment on when a final decision is expected.
‘Everyone gets what they deserve’
Deng Ang said she had lived with and cared for her mother for years before the dispute arose. She called her siblings “crocodiles” and said the family could not reconcile their differences and settle the issues out of the court.
“It has come to this stage so we can’t go back,” Deng Ang said. “The Devada will help me. Everyone gets what they deserve,” she added, referring to a Khmer mythical angel.
Her aging mother, meanwhile, also counted on karmic justice to prevail on her behalf. Sitting on a bed beside a drawing of the Buddha, Han Kak began to sob and said her daughter “will go to hell” for the family's troubles.