Eighty-four civil society organisations requested that the government expedite the settlement of land disputes in the area nearby the new Phnom Penh International Airport in Kandal and Takeo provinces. The request was made on the occasion of the 37th World Habitat Day October 3.
However, the government responded that it has adequate mechanisms and committees to deal with the issues, while dismissing their requests as grandstanding rather than advocacy.
The joint statement issued on World Habitat Day expressed concern over the situation and requested that the government push for an appropriate solution to end the long-standing disputes between villagers and the Overseas Cambodia Investment Corporation (OCIC), the company building the airport.
The 84 civil society organisations included rights groups LICADHO, Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR) and ADHOC.
"We have noticed that the disputes are serious, with many affected people suffering from forced evictions from their homes and land without receiving satisfactory and appropriate solutions,” the statement said.
The six-page statement said what even more serious is that the affected people have also been pressured through lawsuits to abandon their claims, adding that these suits amounted to "strategic lawsuits against public participation" or "SLAPP" suits, a term for abusive practice used by the wealthy and big businesses to punish those who oppose them.
Nine people, including four women, out of 30 arrested over large-scale violent clashes on September 12 last year between landowners and security forces are still facing criminal charges, although they have been released, according to the statement.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan told The Post that, while only the government via its land dispute resolution mechanisms was able to solve such matters for the people, the NGOs were just complaining for the sake of hearing their own voices or seeing their names in print without intending to fix anything.
Siphan added that the request was not to the right target because only the courts can apply the law and find a legal solution to the disputes. If the settlement is unreasonable, the affected people even have the right to file a lawsuit against the government or the land dispute resolution committee, he noted.
"The justice mechanism is the courts. Protesters must have a reason to reject the courts' solutions, but what reason could that be when so many others have already accepted it? These reasons must be presented in court because the committees are just for mediating and the NGOs are merely advocating their own political beliefs and neither is based on the rule of law," he said.
Kandal provincial governor Kong Sophorn told The Post on October 3 that the committees had been set up, including with the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, to find a resolution for the remaining residents in the area of the new airport.
However, Sophorn said that only a small number of people did not agree with the value set by the government, while most agreed.
"We did not send people to prison and only briefly detained a few of them and then released them. On the other hand, if the organisation is asking us to expedite things, they are implying that we have not tried to solve the problem.
“But as a matter of fact, they [villagers] just didn’t accept the value set by the government or the company. If people aren't satisfied with the price, we have other places where we can exchange land for them, but a small number of them refused to be satisfied with any of it,” he said.
The new Phnom Penh International Airport project covers an area of about 2,600ha spanning Kandal province’s Takhmao town and Kandal Stueng district and some parts of Takeo province’s Bati district.
The project is slated for completion in 2023. Once completed, the airport, officially named “Techo Takhmao International Airport”, will be able to handle about 13 million passengers per year by 2030 and a projected 30 million passengers per year by 2050.