A group of 30 civil society organisations including labour unions, NGOs, community networks, indigenous peoples, youth groups and professional associations have requested that the government be more responsive to the concerns of its citizenry and allow people the freedom, opportunity and space to express their opinions and to protest issues such as land and natural resources rights.

The request came via a joint statement issued during a two-day online community conference held on December 7-8 on the topics of Covid-19, land rights and natural resource rights, which was attended by representatives from the 30 organisations that signed on to the statement.

Vorn Pov, president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA), said the conference’s joint message showed that the land communities – both indigenous people and Khmer people who have been displaced – are in the midst of a crisis concerning land use and access to natural resources.

He said the conference wanted to send a message to the government and to international institutions that they should anticipate an increase in conflict surrounding these issues if they are not able to solve them proactively.

He also requested that the government drop all charges against environmental and land rights activists who are currently in custody or awaiting trial.

“Despite the release of some activists, they are still under court surveillance, pressure and restrictions because of their being out on parole or probation.

“We request that the government . . . resolve land issues for those affected and we’d also like to notify the government that the land settlement mechanism is not supposed to be used to persecute and punish land communities as if they were criminals,” he said.

Theng Savoeun, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community (CCFC), said the land grabbing and destruction of natural resources was spreading everywhere just as virulently as Covid-19.

“During the Covid-19 pandemic people who participate in protests or demonstrations asking the authorities for solutions are all arrested using the Covid-19 laws. They are not allowed to protest or defend their land,” he said.

The conference was held ahead of the celebration of the 73rd anniversary of Human Rights Day on December 10.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan told The Post on December 8 that the unions and other organisation’s allegations were totally inappropriate.

He said that the government only takes legal action against those who violate the law and use political protests as cover for engaging in illegal activities.

“Regarding environmental issues, the Ministry of Environment is very open to communicating and working with people, but these groups that claim to be environmentalists are often the cause of problems, not helping to prevent problems. They post biased information and are usually backed by agencies that report to foreign masterminds,” he said.

The government has stepped up its activities to prevent land grabbing and to resolve people’s land disputes with land dispute resolution committees at the district and provincial administrative levels, he said.

“I hope that all of these unions and associations will fulfil their duties in accordance with our laws and start behaving responsibly instead of playing activist to please foreign donors. If people have land issues or are unhappy about their land we have a unit from the government that will handle their complaints,” he said.