A Boeung Kok activist holding a sign demanding the government
for land titles. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post
Only days after Prime Minister Hun Sen warned villagers trapped in land disputes against seeking support from local NGOs, rights groups said yesterday they were outraged over the ultimatum.
During a land titling ceremony in Preah Vihear province on Friday, the premier said he would not resolve land disputes in which civil society or opposition parties had become involved.
“The Prime Minister is royalty to the 14 million people in Cambodia and when the people have a problem, it is the problem of the Prime Minister. It is his obligation to find a solution,” Housing Rights Task Force director Sia Phearum told the Post yesterday.
The blunt message from Hun Sen was that “if people need me to help, don’t have any civil groups or politicians pestering” the government on land disputes.
“I will not resolve [a land dispute] if civil groups or politicians are involved in the land disputes,” the premier said.
The comment was part of a pre-electoral scare campaign aimed at increasing reliance on Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian Peoples Party and diminishing the voice of opposition and rights groups, Phearum said, adding that such comments were “always made” before elections.
Giving desperate villagers an ultimatum in resolving Cambodia’s plague of land disputes was just a further step in tightening control over the work of NGOs, Cambodia Center for Human Rights’ executive director Ou Virak said yesterday.
“This is a sign the Prime Minister is further trying to polarise our roles. There is a lot of pressure on NGOs these days, even to rent conference rooms or office space.”
Continued harassment of even the administrative functions of advocacy NGOs was part of a government endeavour to eventually “squeeze out and restrict completely” the work of civil society in Cambodia, Virak added.
“I don’t see how we can claim to be in a transition towards democracy: we are in a transition towards more autocracy.”
Adhoc senior investigator Chan Soveth said that creating an “us and them” mentality between civil-society organisations and the government would inevit-ably harm progress.
“In a developing country, the government cannot foster significant development without the co-operation of civil groups and opposition political parties,” Soveth said.
Ultimately, all camps shared the same goal: to end land disputes in the Kingdom, he pointed out.
“What [Prime Minister Hun Sen] has said is that the government acknowledges themselves that they need to resolve people’s disputes.”
Opposition parliamentarian Mu Sochua, who regularly champions the agenda of dispossessed villagers, said it was an important development that the premier had publicly acknowledged land disputes are a problem.
“He has recognised that there is a problem, and that is what we must concentrate on,” Sochua said, expressing that only true national unity in resolving land disputes would garner success.
“The head of the government should not be afraid of villagers so desperate to have their issues resolved that they should be going to elected members of parliament for help.”
Hun Sen has adopted a mandate to distribute land titles to a million hectares of disputed land and earmarked other land for development in line with future population expansion.
False information, doctored documents and drama-driven rights groups complicated this policy, government spokesman Phay Siphan said yesterday.
“We understand that a number of cases have been manipulated [by civil rights groups and opposition politicians]. They try to play the role of judge, but we already have courts that deal with land issues.”
Siphan said that in an ideal setting, courts alone would handle all land disputes.
“But we need to show some flexibility, because we are short on judges, short on prosecutors. This is why the government has to interfere on this one [solving land disputes].
“There are too many complications created by [NGOs], which is why the government has to go down to solve the problems of the people.”
According to CCHR, at least five per cent of the land in Cambodia is disputed.
Adhoc cites 60,000 people as being affected by land disputes and evictions in 2011 alone.
Many disputes arise from the granting of economic land concessions, which, according to the rights group Licadho, cover just over 20 per cent of Cambodia.
The about-face recognition by the Prime Minister that land disputes are a serious problem requiring government-assisted resolutions was further impetus to work more closely with NGOs, Phearum agreed.
“NGOs and opposition parties are a good government partner, like putting up a mirror to help reflect problems.”