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Diplomatic Feathers Unruffled by Failed Developer's Flight

The decision to tear down an illegally erected series of villas on the outskirts of Phnom Penh is unlikely to hurt Cambodia's relationship with its large neighbor, China, officials said Wednesday, but it might strengthen the ruling party's support among the populace.

Long Chin, a Chinese citizen, built the villas on government land he did not own. He sold the villas and fled the country when the government learned what he had done. Authorities reclaimed the land and knocked down the buildings.

New-home buyers on the site have not been repaid their money, and Long Chin is gone, but the entire row is unlikely to ruffle any diplomatic feathers, officials agree.

"I think that it will not have an adverse effect on the relationship between Cambodia and China," said Son Chhay, a lawmaker for the Sam Rainsy Party. "China receives big benefits from the present government, compared to this minor loss of benefits from the Kap Srov lake development."

The demolition will more likely strengthen Prime Minister Hun Sen's political position ahead of the 2008 national elections, as it will showcase him as tough on land theft, observers said.

Ny Chariya, a human rights investigator for Adhoc, said the government's move will bolster its popular support.

He warned, though, that while Long Chin's company lost on a land grab, other companies continue to operate, especially on shallow lakes near the capital, which they are filling in for development.

This often hurts local residents, who rely on the seasonal lakes for fishing and farming.

"This is not a law enforcement. It is not an implementation of the rule of law. It becomes a threat to investment that [the government] does not like," Ny Chariya said.

Some observers warned that the demolition could worry future investors.

However, even one such demolition could give investors more confidence, said Kang Chandararoth, an economic researcher at the Cambodian Institute of Economic Research.

Other investors could become more fearful of breaking the law, he said, and use natural resources more responsibly.

"I think that legal investors will consider the law as supreme," he said. "They will not hesitate to invest in Cambodia. Those investors who do not want to come, or who are afraid, are those who will take advantage of our country. Therefore it is a good thing."