Prime Minister Hun Sen made a bold pledge to the hundreds of thousands of Cambodian villagers fighting companies for their homes yesterday, ordering that in every economic land concession across the country, space must be provided for those they would displace.
But last month’s royal book reveals that just over a week after making a similar order in May – to temporarily halt the granting of all economic land concessions – Hun Sen signed off on three agro-industrial concessions in one day.
At a closed conference on the implementation of the national development strategy for 2009-2013, the premier gave provincial governors just six months to demarcate 10 per cent of every agro-industrial, forest or illegally established ELC for villagers to live on.
“And if any provincial governor does not do it, be aware that I will go to put up a tent to measure land for people directly,” he said, adding that where the interests of companies and citizens clashed, priority had to be given to the people.
“The offering of ownership is real, and we have to cut a minimum of 10 per cent for community forest.
“And the more we cut, the happier I am, because one village has one community forest for the community to live on forest crops.”
Each family would be limited to a two- to five-hectare social land concession, but if they already had a claim greater than that, another five hectares could be granted to them as a small ELC for their own agro-business, Hun Sen said.
The prime minister also said some forest parks in Phnom Penh might have been mapped in a way that overlapped areas inhabited by villagers, and if that was the case, he was ready to sign over land for them.
A spate of violent forced evictions and bloody crackdowns on protests against companies awarded ELCs this year has propelled the issue of land rights high on the Cambodian political agenda.
The opposition Sam Rainsy Party has been one of the most ardent critics of the government over the issue, and yesterday its spokesman, Yim Sovann, welcomed the premier’s decision.
“I think if he has the political will to do it, he can do it, and he must do it, because it has become a social crisis already. People are standing up now; some people are sacrificing their life. It has become more and more terrible,” Yim Sovann said.
But he questioned the sincerity of Hun Sen’s altruistic reforms, which coincided with the arrival of world leaders next month for the ASEAN Regional Forum and the race to Cambodia’s parliamentary elections next year.
The prime minister pre-empted such criticisms in the address, stating he had made the decision neither with the ballot box in mind, nor from international pressure, but because “I love my people”.
Rights groups and political analysts, however, pointed to the revelation that after the premier ordered a temporary moratorium on granting ELCs and a review of all existing ones on May 7, he appeared to have defied his own directive.
On May 18, Hun Sen granted rubber concessions of 8,000 hectares in Ratanakkiri to SK Plantation (Cambodia) Pte Ltd, 5,940 hectares to HMH Co Ltd in Kampong Thom and 7,710 hectares to Le Ye Rubber to develop rubber plantations.
Naly Pilorge, director of the rights group Licadho, said there was little doubt the suspension and review order had been an empty election promise, coming just before June 3 commune ballots.
“But now that the government has breached the spirit – if not the letter – of its own order less than two weeks after it was signed, it suggests that the order might as well have been a blank piece of paper. It means nothing in the real world,” she said by email.
Ek Tha, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers’ Quick and Press Reaction Unit, said whatever the prime minister did was for the interests of the nation as a whole.
“He cares about the interests of the Cambodian people. That is why the super majority of the Cambodian voters continue to vote for the ruling party, CPP, to stay in power,” Ek Tha said.
Regardless of Hun Sen’s intentions, large question marks remain about the feasibility of executing such an ambitious plan in such a short period.
Mathew Rendall, a partner at the law firm Sciaroni and Associates, said the government could legally take private land for public use, but it would have to establish processes and was supposed to pay compensation.
“A concession is a contractual agreement, and people have rights and obligations under the concession. So to take away land would be a change to the concession agreement,” he said.
“To me, to unilaterally change it is not consistent with Cambodian contract law.”
Each ELC would have different contractual circumstances that had to be negotiated, and any land that was cut from the ELC would have to be done so in a way that did not impact the agreed-to project plan, Rendall said.
Hun Sen suggested volunteers could be recruited from schools and that he would pay them out of his own pocket if there were insufficient officials to complete the task.
By all accounts, it would be enormous operation.
The rights groups Licadho and Adhoc found that after a record increase in the number of ELCs granted in 2011, about two million hectares of Cambodian land – about 12 per cent of the country – had been given away for private development.
The government put the figure closer to 1.2 million hectares, while the latest statistics from the Ministry of Forestry and Fisheries website in April found that more than 900,000 hectares in ELCs had been granted this year.