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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Pair of reports on land rights face cynicism

Pair of reports on land rights face cynicism

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A man stands on the railway tracks near Boeung Kak lake in Phnom Penh last week. Plans to rebuild the lines have left residents in Tuol Kork and Daun Penh next in line for eviction.

TWO new reports addressing land rights in Cambodia argue, as others have, that the pursuit of development has led to widespread rights violations, including forced, sometimes violent evictions.

But they also share a conciliatory message that emphasises the importance of government dialogue with affected communities and civil society.

That message has drawn scepticism from civil society and opposition figures, who on Wednesday said they doubted such an approach would amount to much in light of the government's tactics in recent land-dispute negotiations.

An overview of land disputes released today by the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC), a coalition of NGOs, offers "a painful look into the lives of people affected by forced evictions and intimidation".

It then positions the coalition as "a bridge to support genuine and productive dialogue between communities and policymakers".

Similarly, a report to the UN Human Rights Council, released Monday, expresses concern over the "commonplace" evictions of families who had been living in their homes for years.

The report's author, Surya Subedi, a UN envoy on human rights in Cambodia, later adds: "This is an area where I will be happy to offer my advice and seek to foster cooperation in the search for long-term solutions to this painful issue."

In interviews Wednesday, observers said this faith in dialogue might be misplaced.

CHRAC Executive Secretary Suon Sareth acknowledged that several past attempts by affected residents and civil society to engage constructively with the government had failed.

He cited a case last month in which about 300 Cambodians involved in land disputes in 19 different provinces petitioned the Council of Ministers, the Ministry of Interior and the National Authority for the Resolution of Land Disputes.

The effort was an attempt to circumvent unresponsive provincial authorities, but Phnom Penh officials also failed to respond to the villagers' petition, Suon Sareth said.

"The complaints have been ignored," he said.

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said Wednesday that all complaints were forwarded to the ministry's inspection department. He added, as did other officials, that the government was more than willing to engage with residents affected by land disputes.

"The ministry has always welcomed complaints from people about land cases," he said.

But Yim Sovann, spokesman for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, said he believed threats and other forms of intimidation were often conveyed under the pretense of constructive dialogue, citing as examples meetings between officials and residents of the evicted Dey Krahorm and Group 78 communities.

"I get a lot of complaints from people who say they were forced to leave there, that they were forced to take compensation," he said. "Then the government tells the media, 'Oh, the people have agreed to leave, they have agreed to take the compensation.' There are threats and intimidation behind that."

Naly Pilorge, director of the rights group Licadho, also said officials' interactions with villagers involved in land disputes were often of little benefit to the villagers themselves.

"Information about the dire situation of people and abuses committed on people related to land are often dismissed despite credible evidence," she said.

For his part, Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said the stated goal of the UN and CHRAC to foster more good-faith government engagement might not be unrealistic given that government officials want to keep donors happy and retain voter support.

"The strongest reason for the government to be concerned," he said, "is the fact that this is the biggest issue that could undermine the ruling party."

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