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The calm before the strife

Security forces in Phnom Penh use electric batons last week to disperse about 300 protesting villagers from Kratie
Security forces in Phnom Penh use electric batons last week to disperse about 300 protesting villagers from Kratie. At least 10 people were injured in the clashes. Pha Lina

The calm before the strife

The United Nations in Cambodia has registered a sharp rise in the number of forced evictions in rural areas over the past year, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Surya Subedi has said in a report.

The annual report submitted to the UN secretary-general on August 15 and published on Saturday comes on the heels of Prime Minister Hun Sen announcing on August 18 that he would establish a new committee to review land concessions handed out to private companies.

Subedi wrote that the past year “has been one in which one of the key components of a vibrant democracy – an engaged and informed electorate free to express its views – has clearly emerged”.

However, he noted that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had recorded a steep rise in the number of violent forced evictions from disputed rural land.

“Incidents included the burning and bulldozing of houses and shelters, often without notice or court orders mandating the action, and arbitrary detention of those who defended their property,” the report said. “This followed a period of relative calm during the period preceding and immediately following the July 2013 national elections.”

The events, the report continued, involved “a number of incidents of excessive use of force by the authorities” and direct action on the part of protesters in the absence of official avenues to resolve their disputes.

Hun Sen passed a directive in May 2012 which placed a moratorium on issuing new economic land concessions (ELCs) to private companies. But rights groups say much more needs to be done to address the issue of rural land disputes.

“Not all lands have been surveyed and even some families who had their land surveyed have yet to receive titles,” Subedi noted. “Access to information and a lack of transparency and accountability in the land-titling process and the management of land concessions remain serious concerns.”

Three days after Subedi’s report was submitted, Hun Sen formalised a professed commitment to tackle land issues by ordering the creation of an “inter-ministerial committee to review, measure and evaluate ELCs”.

The 14-member committee will be headed by Deputy Prime Minister Bun Chhen, who also heads the National Authority for Land Dispute Resolution (NALDR).

On Friday, Hun Sen admonished low-ranking officials for not reporting land conflicts to him and said officials found to have not properly informed their superiors of ongoing disputes would face the sack.

Sia Phearum, director of the Housing Rights Task Force, said Hun Sen’s comments were an encouraging sign.

“On August 18, Prime Minister Hun Sen blamed his subordinates for land disputes for the first time. Before, he had never recognised the role of the authorities in land disputes in Cambodia,” he said.

“It is a positive step. Right now they have started to say that officials may have to resign. We will continue to monitor how that is implemented.”

Sao Sopheap, spokesman at the Ministry of Environment, couldn’t be reached.

NALDR member Pal Chandra referred questions to Chhen, who couldn’t be reached.

Am Sam Ath, a senior investigator with Licadho, said he welcomed any moves to resolve land disputes, adding that the government should also strengthen the NALDR and local cadastral committees.

“If they cannot strengthen what already exists, the problems cannot be coped with, which means the problems will continue to exist,” he said.

Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, disputed the UN’s statement that it had witnessed a “sharp rise” in land disputes. “I don’t think that is true. Since last year until now we didn’t have any new issues. Every dispute is different; some are very complex. Some need time to be considered by the courts. That is why the government has set up a committee to review ELCs,” he said.

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