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R'kiri villagers turned away from govt-donor meeting

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Representatives in town to highlight indigenous land-rights issues

Photo by:

TRACEY SHELTON

Indigenous minority villagers watch as delegates arrive at Tuesday’s donor forum.

AROUND 40 indigenous minority villagers from Ratanakkiri province were refused access to a government-donor forum Tuesday after attempting to address delegates about indigenous land rights.

The villagers, along with other community representatives and rights activists, were turned away by security guards after they tried to enter the Government Donor Coordination Committee (GDCC) forum to present their statement in person.

In the statement, the group drew attention to the loss of rotational farmland, spirit forests and burial grounds to economic land concessions, and the consequent loss of livelihood and community identity.

The statement also called on government and donor countries to "stop or reduce the number of economic land concessions in indigenous community areas" and to "speed up the process" of indigenous land registrations, laid down in the Kingdom's 2001 Land Law.

"We want the donors to intervene by pushing the government to resolve the problems of indigenous minority people," Oum Meach, 46, an ethnic Koy representative from Kampong Thom province, said outside the GDCC meeting.

"The development of the country should not impact the rights and farmlands of indigenous minority people."

Sev Twel, a Kong Yu village representative, said villagers wanted to enter the meeting to find a resolution to their ongoing land dispute with Keat Kolney, the sister of Finance Minister Keat Chhon - a keynote speaker at the GDCC meeting.

But Sev Twel added that a recent spate of land grabs had led to the loss of "land, forests, mines, rotating farms, spiritual land, burial grounds, natural resources [and] wild animals" belonging to indigenous communities across the country.

Unfulfilled promises

Action to protect and register indigenous land is one of many benchmarks - or Joint Monitoring Indicators (JMIs) - agreed between the government and overseas donors as measures of aid effectiveness.

But while the Kingdom's 2001 Land Law contains articles outlawing the sale of indigenous land and allowing it to be registered, rights groups say implementation has been nonexistent.

Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Centre, said the Land Law was "relatively progressive" in that it recognised indigenous land rights, but that its utility was undermined by a lack of political will.

"If implemented strictly and properly, [it] could mitigate a lot of problems. But it needs to be implemented," he said.

According to a statement released by a coalition of land rights groups Monday, the government has consistently failed its legal commitments to protect indigenous land since 2002, and that donor money continues to flow despite the government failing related JMI targets for seven years straight.

"In the seven years since benchmarks have been set, not a single square metre of indigenous communal property has been registered," the statement said.

On Friday, the Council of Ministers passed its long-awaited Subdecree on the Procedures of Registration of Land of Indigenous Communities, but NGO sources contacted by the Post said they had not been given a copy of the edict and suspected it contains few changes from an eariler version.

"Any sort of public policy document has an effect on the public and there should be a genuine consultation process," Yeng Virak added.

Mark Grimsditch, a legal adviser for rights group Bridges Across Borders, said the old draft raised a number of concerns, including a provision (Article 7) that communities could only register their land once outstanding land disputes were resolved, which he said created "a significant barrier" to land protection.

Article 4 of the subdecree also restricts communities' spirit forests and burial grounds to 7 hectares in size - something that is "against traditional practice".

But Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said the government was committed to solving land problems, and that it had held "discussions with NGOs and commune chiefs" over the subdecree's contents. He said the new draft would be posted on the Council's website by today or Thursday.

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