The number of families newly affected by land disputes last year was three times that of 2013, according to figures documented by local rights group Licadho.
In a statement released yesterday, the group “strongly expresse[d] its concern” at the surge in disputes, noting that in 2014 alone, it documented an estimated 49,519 individuals who were newly affected by land conflicts.
Licadho says complaints involving 10,625 families were registered last year, compared to 3,475 in 2013 and 5,672 in 2012.
The released figures, which are “mostly confined” to the 13 provinces in which the group has field offices, are evidence that “urgent action is required to avert this continuing trend”, Licadho says.
Yesterday’s statement follows data released by the group last April, which showed that Cambodia had passed a “shameful milestone”, with land conflicts having affected more than half a million people since 2000.
The government then dismissed the findings and has since, on a number of occasions, lauded its own efforts to resolve disputes.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan yesterday said Licadho’s latest figures were “fabricated”.
“They have a hidden agenda . . . they are making it up to get more funds,” he said. “We [the government] don’t say anything to earn funding for reports; the government is looking for votes . . . We don’t lie to the people, we don’t play games with the people; we want our people to be happy.”
Siphan added that Licadho should “mention the names of the people and the area where the dispute happened [if they want the government to take it seriously]. We are looking for informative reports.”
Environment Ministry spokesman Sao Sopheap also dismissed the group’s figures, but acknowledged that the number of conflicts increased in 2014.
The government, he said, was doing its best to address the issue.
“The reality is that our ministries and institutions are working on the government’s policy to solve all land conflicts.
“In this fifth mandate, we have to work to monitor and measure the development work in areas that investment firms are working in and [look at] how it is affecting the people,” he said.
But in the statement yesterday, Licadho director Naly Pilorge said the government needed to stop “making the same promises again and again over land disputes”.
“The authorities need to address the problem immediately with long-term lasting solutions.”
Without drastic action, she said, Licadho believes that 2015 will not be any better.
For the victims of such conflicts, a solution cannot come soon enough.
Seventy-one-year-old Prak Thorn said he dreams of living in peace after years spent fighting with Chinese company Union Development Group.
In 2008, UDG was awarded a 36,000-hectare economic land concession in Koh Kong to develop a huge resort and several planned industrial projects. It was later given a 9,000-hectare concession to build a dam.
The company is accused of displacing more than 1,000 families and leaving others without compensation. Just this month, 20 families there were ordered to demolish their homes.
“Eviction is still happening every day, but we are strong together to stop them,” Thorn said.
“We keep on hoping that our problem will be solved based on the prime minister’s promise to solve all land disputes in Cambodia.”
Others have less faith in the government finding a solution.
Om Sophy, whose community in Kampong Chhnang province has been embroiled in a long-running dispute with politically-connected development company KDC International, said the authorities and judiciary are on the side of the powerful.
“If we protest to stop evictions, citizens face crackdowns from the authorities . . . and threats from the court.”
Sophy added that despite a visit from the National Assembly’s Human Rights commission in early September, which “promised to solve our problem within a week”, the dispute remained unresolved.
Opposition lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang, who heads the commission, said he is “pushing the government and the local authorities to work out [disputes] quickly”.
Independent analyst Ou Virak said that while the government was looking into worthwhile reforms, it was not effectively enforcing them.
“You don’t have a government who will put their foot down . . . so you are bound to have injustice.”