Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Devolution reforms struggle to bridge ethnic divides in highlands

Devolution reforms struggle to bridge ethnic divides in highlands

Devolution reforms struggle to bridge ethnic divides in highlands


Indigenous minority representatives say they have seen little benefit from administrative reforms.

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An ethnic Phnong boy in Mondulkiri province's Sen Monorom district. 


Rights workers have expressed concerns over the living conditions of about 100 ethnic Tumpuon in Ratanakkiri province's Lumphat district, who have fled their villages in fear of arrest in connection with a local land dispute. Pen Bonna, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, said the provincial court issued an arrest warrant in April for eight villagers accused of "grabbing" rubber plantation land belonging to the local DM Group. The villagers had planted crops on land allegedly belonging to the company. "About 100 men in the village have fled their families to hide in the jungle out of fear, and the women are living in the village alone without working," he said. "It is a serious abuse of their rights, and we are investigating the issue in order to find which men fled their homes." Pen Bonna said the dispute - over 200 hectares of community forests and 100 hectares of farmland - dated from 2005, when local authorities tried to convince people in Tatang and Oul villages to sell their land for a rubber plantation. Villagers, however, claim they never approved the sale. Provincial police Chief Rir Ray declined comment on the issue Tuesday, saying he was in hospital.

WITH Cambodia's 11,353 commune councillors set to elect a new series of sub-national councils, local communities may soon get a greater say over local development and the direction of government resources.

But for Cambodia's indigenous minority communities - long isolated from the Khmer majority by the twin tyrannies of culture and distance - the administrative reshuffle could prove a dead letter in the face of a major local concern: land-grabbing.

The government's much-touted decentralisation and deconcentration (D&D) reforms will take another step forward May 17 when commune councillors go to the polls to elect new councils at the provincial, district and municipal levels.

In its 2005 Strategic Framework for D&D Reforms, the government claims the policy, which kicked off with commune council elections in 2002, will allow indigenous minorities to "participate in decision making" at lower levels of government and will strengthen poverty alleviation efforts in indigenous communities by building up local economic capacity.

But the reforms will face stern challenges in Ratanakkiri and Mondulkiri provinces, home to the majority of Cambodia's estimated 220,000 indigenous highlanders.

In recent years, a booming economy has triggered a scramble for mining and agricultural concessions in the region, pitting indigenous communities against powerful economic interests.

Since 2004, Ratanakkiri has seen a long-standing dispute between residents of Kong Yu village, an ethnic Jarai community in O'Yadav district, and a rubber company owned by Keat Kolney, sister of Finance Minister Keat Chhon.

In December last year, ethnic Phnong protesters in Mondulkiri's Bou Sra commune burned tractors belonging to the Khaou Chuly rubber company in protest over a 10,000-hectare rubber concession they claim has led to the loss of community farmland.

Despite some economic gains and increased representation on commune councils under the reforms, many community representatives said land grabbing by powerful economic interests continues unabated.

‘Added hardships'

Ngeat Vandy, 30, a Phnong representative in Mondulkiri's Dakdum commune, said decentralisation had brought the community material benefits such as roads, schools and hospitals, but lamented that land issues had not yet been addressed.


He said also that open discussion was "limited" in the commune, and that local people were threatened and warned against protesting local developments: "We cannot talk about the opposition parties."
The provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, Sam Sarin, said that despite the reforms, many indigenous communities still lacked a forum for airing concerns to the province's 105 commune councillors, most of whom are themselves indigenous.

As a result, protests over the combustible issue of land appropriation have been followed with the arrests and detention of local dissenters.

"In implementing the decentralisation, local authorities listen more to the top levels than to the people," he said.

In Ratanakkiri province, local attitudes are much the same. Chhou Savath, 58, a representative of the province's indigenous peoples, said that although minority representatives dominated local commune councils, they had done little to increase the responsiveness of government and had created "added hardships" for locals.

"People have no hope," he told the Post in March. "Local officials are on the side of private companies and the people who have money and power."

Dam Chanthy, director of the Highland Association in Banlung, said that the reform policy would bring benefits because it offered an opportunity for "people who are weak to share their ideas", but that the practice was lagging behind the theory due to the lack of local knowledge about the reforms.

"In order for decentralisation to be implemented smoothly and effectively, the government should offer more training to local officials," she said.

The CPP's parliamentary representative in Mondulkiri province, Roth Sarem, admitted indigenous people were concerned about land issues, but said that local authorities did "not have the right" to make rulings on such disputes.

"Some of those land issues have been solved and other issues are being considered at the top levels," he said.

But Tinn Loung, the ethnic Tumpuon chief of Yeak Loam commune, said that the reforms had been implemented well in the commune and that people "participated actively" in the development of their communities.

Last year, local opposition to the development of Yeak Loam lake, a tourist site controlled and administered by the Tumpuon communities that ring its shores, helped veto the plans, he said.

"The Yeak Loam development plan is still in the hands of the community, and the provincial leaders did not make any decision after people in the community rejected it," he said.

Local cooperation vital

Groups working with ethnic minority groups said that the key issue in the policy's implementation was the working relationship between commune councils and indigenous institutions.

"Sometimes there is a concern that the new structures are influenced by politics, whereas the old structures have more respect traditionally," said Chhith Sam Ath, executive director of the NGO Forum on Cambodia.

He said that the government should think carefully about how existing cultures will be impacted by the actions of the elected commune councils.

"The challenge is how these two can work together more effectively," he said.

But Stephen Ehrentraut, a researcher with background in decentralisation and minority issues, was more pessimistic, saying the reform "in its current design" was institutionally and linguistically incompatible with the indigenous participation.

"It does not recognise and utilise indigenous organisations, which are mostly village-based," he said by email.

"Rather, it replaces and overrides those institutions with village chiefs and commune councils claiming authority previously exercised by indigenous institutions."

In an unpublished paper, Ehrentraut also criticised the World Bank's Rural Investment and Local Governance Project, which is helping support government reform efforts at the commune level, arguing that its ethnic minority safeguards were "insufficient".

While the World Bank is one of the few donors to back its safeguards policy with a detailed study, he said it had not translated into effective protection.

"[My] findings highlight the challenges faced by the Bank and other development agencies in supporting indigenous peoples in countries whose governments have neither legal frameworks nor political will to recognise indigenous rights," he wrote.

However, the World Bank claims it has implemented special measures to ensure ethnic minorities are able to participate in and benefit from the allocations of commune development funds.

Louise Scura, the Bank's lead natural resource economist, said that the organisation's current indigenous people's policy, endorsed in May 2005, required governments to carry out social assessments and seek community support prior to initiating local development projects - including those carried out under the World Bank project's auspices.

The Bank's regular supervision of the rural investment project ensured its safeguards policies were reviewed periodically and that any adjustments were made in partnership with the government, she said, but added that addressing issues relating to highland peoples required "higher-level policy dialogue", extending beyond the scope of the project.

A long way to go

Overall, Scura said that it was too early to tell whether decentralisation would benefit ethnic minorities, adding that it would take "several decades at minimum" for the reforms to be fully weighed up.

"In most countries, the process is typified by periods of progress and reversal, [and] Cambodia is unlikely to be an exception," she said.

Leaving D&D aside, Chhith Sam Ath of the NGO Forum said the issue of land security also boiled down to the government commitment to enforce laws and sub-decrees codifying and protecting the land tenure of indigenous minorities.

He said enforcement was weak in remote areas and that the process of applying for communal land titles under the 2001 Land Law was "very slow".

"It doesn't mean the government is not taking action," he said. "It's all there. It's just a question of implementing it."


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