More than 700 land activists from the capital, Preah Sihanouk, Svay Rieng, Tbong Khmum, Preah Vihear and Kandal provinces gathered on Tuesday at Freedom Park in Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district to deliver petitions seeking solutions to their longstanding land disputes.
The activists said they intended to submit their petitions to the justice, agriculture and land management ministries, the National Assembly and the newly established joint committee at Prime Minister Hun Sen’s residence, but were rounded up by authorities and made to gather at the park.
They said some other activists who had initially joined them were stopped halfway and paid to return home. Journalists, civil society groups and UN officials were also barred from attending the gathering.
You Veasna, who represents communities locked in land disputes in Preah Sihanouk province, said such issues are omnipresent. He urged the authorities to seek solutions for villagers instead of trading blame.
“[Minister of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction] Chea Sophara has the real will to solve problems, but other officials do the opposite. They just point fingers at each other and push us around.
“Some officials, for instance, refer us to a certain institution but officials at that institution refer us to other places for a solution. Eventually, there is no compromise. It’s a shame that the government employs such officials,” he said.
Veasna alleged that long-running land disputes are left unsolved because the relevant authorities were afraid of well-connected businesspeople. He said the practice had taken a toll on the villagers’ livelihood.
Lim Sophy, a community representative from Koh Kong province, urged the authorities to release land activists who have been imprisoned over disputes. She also appealed for an immediate end to intimidation and threats against protesters through the judicial system.
“Government officials are not willing to solve land disputes. They always point fingers and keep saying they are investigating. I’ve heard that for nearly 10 years and they still haven’t wrapped up their investigation!” she exclaimed.
Rights group Adhoc spokesman Soeung Sen Karuna said on Tuesday that authorities at sub-national level seem unable to find speedy solutions because some land disputes involved well-connected companies and individuals who grabbed the people’s land without proper compensation.
“Companies backed by powerful people make it hard for those with no power to seek justice and solutions. In the past, such firms even paid government officials to suppress the people. The law doesn’t seem to be very effective,” he said.
On October 16, Hun Sen created a joint committee to accept land dispute-related complaints and petitions at his residence in Phnom Penh and in Kandal province’s Takhmao city.
Royal Cambodian Armed Forces deputy commander and commander of Hun Sen’s Bodyguard Unit, Hing Bun Heang, was appointed to head the committee.
He told The Post on Tuesday that he was aware of the protesters’ gathering and is reviewing their petitions.