Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday sought to distance himself from the land dispute epidemic plaguing Cambodia, professing complete ignorance of many of the cases and placing the onus primarily on provincial-level officials.
Warning ministers, provincial governors and other officials that he has “no patience” left, the premier went so far as to suggest that if they don’t provide speedy resolutions, they should leave their posts.
The reprimand comes as villagers from Snuol district in Kratie and Lor Peang village in Kampong Chhnang have travelled to Phnom Penh in recent weeks to seek resolutions to their disputes, with the Snuol families being violently halted by authorities as they tried to march on the premier’s house just yesterday.
These groups have followed the well-trod path of many who came to the capital to appeal directly to the prime minister – the one person they believe can help them in land battles with private firms, a large number of which, the opposition was quick to point out, are directly linked to ruling party politicians or their families.
But yesterday, the premier said his government’s officials in the provinces are simply “not listening or understanding” what needs to be done.
“If I was in an opposition party, I too would oppose [the government on land issues]. The opposition was not just protesting [without reason]. Look at villagers who have been settled for many years on land where [they] are now not allowed to live but investment is allowed,” he told an audience of diplomats, ministers, provincial governors and other high-ranking officials at the Peace Palace.
“I am sorry, but this matter of land disputes is happening again and again.”
If economic land concessions overlap with land where villagers are residing, he added, the people living there, and not the firms, should be given priority.
While Hun Sen said that villagers were not always right, he called on government officials to actually work to find solutions, instead of being “lazy” and continuously deploying police to block protesting villagers.
He also warned authorities to stop accepting petitions on behalf of the government but failing, he claimed, to actually deliver them to his office in Phnom Penh.
According to rights group Licadho, more than 2.1 million hectares of land has been granted to land concessionaires since 1993, with approximately 400,000 people in the Kingdom having been affected by land disputes since 2003.
In 2012, Hun Sen announced a moratorium on new concessions, a review of existing concessions and a new land-titling program carried out by youth volunteers. However, disputes have continued to flare up throughout the country.
“It has been for very long under the leadership of Hun Sen” that land disputes continue to occur, he said yesterday. “So now I have to watch and take action. If you don’t work and you don’t like to work hard, you can resign.”
Citing the example of those from Snuol in Kratie, Hun Sen instructed Sar Chamrong, the provincial governor, to resolve the problem locally, and failing that, at the ministry level.
“[Officials] are not resolving the problem, and then let the people come to Phnom Penh, and when they arrive in Phnom Penh, still no one resolves the problem,” he said, claiming to have only learned about the Kratie villagers coming to the capital after seeing pictures of them marching with his portrait in the newspaper.
Both Chamrong and Kampong Chhnang Provincial Governor Chhouk Chandoeun said they were “too busy” to comment yesterday following the premier’s admonition.
Um Mara, governor of Preah Vihear, where land disputes are rife, could not be reached.
But opposition spokesman Yim Sovann said that local authorities should not be blamed for failing to resolve a problem the roots of which can be traced to the top levels of government.
“Everyone is aware the top leaders of the CPP are involved and their families are involved in illegal land grabbing. So I think that local authorities or the lower rank of government officials, they should not be blamed for that… I think this is a lack of political will from the top leaders of the CPP,” he said.
When asked if he was referring to Hun Sen directly, Sovann said he did not want to name names but wanted to talk about “principles”.
Civil society advocates yesterday said that by playing the blame game, Hun Sen would achieve little.
“In my opinion, I see that the prime minister always blames his subordinates but not himself,” said Vann Sophath, land reform project coordinator at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
“Blame is blame, but [people] are still stuck without any resolution for land conflict,” he added. “Blaming is not the resolution; law implementation is the resolution.”
He added that although the premier might point the finger at his underlings, in a country like Cambodia where “the power is with one person” – people feel that only Hun Sen can solve their problems.
This is especially true given that so many conflicts involve the relatives of powerful people and politicians, he said, citing the infamous Boeung Kak lake evictions, which involved a firm owned by CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin.
According to rights group Adhoc, Hun Sen cannot pretend he has only just come to the realisation that land disputes are legion.
“People affected by land disputes have been constantly filing complaints to the PM’s cabinet and protesting in front of Hun Sen’s house; NGOs and the UN have been condemning violations and there are reports of land violations in the news daily. Moreover, some of these disputes have been ongoing for decades,” said Chan Soveth, deputy head of land and natural resources rights at Adhoc.
While yesterday’s speech would hopefully work to drive action at the local level, past statements in the same vein have achieved little, he said.
But some embroiled in land disputes were buoyed by the prime minister’s words.
Om Sophy, who represents Lorpeang villagers locked in a dispute with KDC International – owned by the wife of Minister for Industry, Mines and Energy Suy Sem – said she was pleased Hun Sen had said land disputes should be resolved in favour of people, instead of companies.
“I hope that, with the prime minister speaking out now, the problem will be resolved. And I hope that the premier will not favour the wife of his minister.”
Suon Vicheka, a representative of the Snuol district villagers, said that if provincial authorities had taken appropriate action – instead of accusing the families of land grabbing from a rubber firm – they would not have had to come to Hun Sen.
“We would not want to come to the prime minister if those relevant local authorities were able to solve the problem for us,” he said.