The Ministry of Agriculture announced the suspension of a controversial draft law to regulate the agricultural sector yesterday evening, hours after Prime Minister Hun Sen tore into the proposed law and called on the ministry to “drop it”.
In a speech to garment workers in Phnom Penh yesterday morning, Hun Sen said he read about the law in the newspaper and “did not understand” it.
“I send this message to the minister of agriculture to report to me quickly,” Hun Sen said. “I ask you – what is the purpose of this law?”
The draft law, which was first revealed by the Ministry of Agriculture in 2011, has been heavily criticised by farmers and civil society organisations.
Stakeholders say it gives the ministry too much power to grant farmland to private companies, seize land from farmers and control the types and numbers of crops that farmers can grow – grievances that were renewed at a workshop in Phnom Penh on Tuesday.
“If the farmers cannot grow cassava, they can grow corn,” Hun Sen said yesterday. “If not corn, rice. Why do we need to create this law? Give it up.”
However, the premier also took shots at NGOs, whom he appeared to suggest had organised criticism of the law after taking money from unnamed sponsors to “incite” farmers.
Following the speech, a ministry official said he didn’t know what would happen to the law. Hours later, however, the ministry issued its statement suspending the draft legislation – which it attributed to the premier’s speech – but did not elaborate on next steps.
Minister of Agriculture Veng Sakhon and ministry spokesman Lor Raksmey could not be reached for comment after the statement was released.
Theng Saveoun, coordinator of the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community, thanked the premier yesterday evening, saying he was glad the government was paying attention “to the suffering of the people”.
However, in an interview prior to the suspension, he also raised concerns that Hun Sen’s speech could be “related to his efforts to gain popularity”.
Kampong Speu province farmer representative Chea Sopheak called the suspension “good news”, but defended the role of NGOs in educating farmers about the law.
“Samdech rightly said that NGOs are behind us, but the NGOs just help with legal and technical advice because we are not knowledgeable,” Sopheak said. “If we did not ask for their help, [the government] could oppress as they wish.”