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Residents, City at Impasse Over Lake Land

[Editor's note: In the weeks leading into national polls, VOA Khmer will explore a wide number of election issues. The "Election Issues 2008" series will air stories on Tuesday and Wednesday, followed by a related "Hello VOA" guest on Thursday. This is the first in a two-part series examining the development of Phnom Penh's Boeung Kak lake.]

On a recent evening, small groups of residents of the Boeung Kak lake area sat chatting, as the still, stagnant water stirred below their makeshift wooden homes. A slight stench rose from the lake, as looks of concerns crossed the brows of several in one group.

They were worried, they said, about losing their land and their homes without proper compensation from the government in a municipal development deal that will affect thousands of people.

Var Ieng Leang, a 56-year-old with grey hair, was one of them.

"Frankly, I suffer from worry and disappointment," she told VOA Khmer. "I cannot sleep well, or eat well, because I think of the land price for the development. I don't know what the government has calculated about the price of our land, with the market land price or not."

Var Ieng Leang, with many others, would like to see the government compensate her $1,500 per square meter, the market price for land in the capital now.

She is holding out for the money, at odds with the municipal government, which is offering a fixed price for homes in the area.

The municipal government is leasing the land to development company Shukaku, Inc., for 99 years, at $0.60 per square meter per year, according to a copy of the lease agreement obtained by VOA Khmer. That's about $798,000 per year for 133 hectares, for a total lease of about $79 million.

The agreement is to develop the lake area into a center of trade, culture, tourism, residence and entertainment, including strong security and a high measure of safety, according to the lease agreement.

The government has issued three choices for residents of this shabby neighborhood: stay in place once the development is finished; move into a residence on the outskirts of the city; or receive monetary compensation for leaving.

It is the third option that has many residents vexed.

The fixed price of land is far below market price, they say.

The development will affect more than a thousand homes jutting over the water of the lake over 103 hectares and another thousand perched on shore over 30 hectares.

There are 4,252 families living around the lake. Many of these residents support the development, but they say they have not had clear communication from city officials over compensation and other options.

"If the government pays the government-regulated price to us, it is not right," said Leang Eng, 45, told VOA Khmer, "because it will destroy the government's policy of poverty reduction."

Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Pa Socheatvong told VOA Khmer that the market price is not acceptable to the city.

"But we must find the middle way to solve this problem, because Boeung Kak belongs to the government," he said. "However, we respect the people's right to live, and the development will not cause people's development to be lost."

Soeng Bunna, director of the Bunna Realty Group, said the market price for legal land in Phnom Penh is between $800 to $2,500 per square meter and is especially high in residential areas near the water.

A 2007 report by the NGO Forum on Cambodia said that even if all of the $79 million is used to compensate the families, each family would only receive an average of $18,588, or about $400 per square meter, well below the current market price.

It is not clear how the government will pay that much to the families on top of investing in infrastructure. For now, the development site is quiet, but residents say they worry that after the elections, forced evictions will occur.