Nearly five months after ordering a temporary halt on economic land concessions, Prime Minister Hun Sen said on Friday that the moratorium would be extended until his political retirement.
But the announcement, which has come amid mounting criticism over the scope of the ban, was met with scepticism from land rights monitors and analysts who said the order continues to gloss over ongoing land disputes.
“The implementation of the provisions of a long-term ELC ban will likely last until I retire from political arena,” the premier said at a plenary meeting, according to a statement issued by the council of ministers.
On May 7, Hun Sen issued a sweeping halt on ELCs, known as Directive 1. The order called for a provisional halt and a review of existing ELCs, but allowed all concessions currently in the pipeline to go through.
Thus far, the government has not disclosed how many have already been agreed to in principle, but royal book listings show that well over 130,000 hectares of land have been granted since the ban to previously approved companies.
And though the premier has vociferously defended the continued approval of ELCs in the pipeline, rights groups have called the allowance a loophole, slamming the government for failing to enact an iron-clad ban.
As those concessions mount, meanwhile, monitors have grown increasingly cynical about Directive 1.
“I think we’re going to all wait to see,” said Cambodian Center for Human Rights president Ou Virak when asked whether the latest announcement was a positive signal.
“If he is serious now, he could start by putting a stop to all ELCs, and make public what is in the pipeline. All of the ELCs in the pipeline, if you look, almost all are located in protected forest or wildlife sanctuaries. If he’s serious about preventing land conflict, he should first and foremost start following the land law.”
Am Sam Ath, a senior investigator for rights group Licadho, called the lengthening of the moratorium encouraging, but urged more transparency concerning ELCs in the pipeline.
“It would be even better if Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly declares the cancellation of the Directive 1’s fourth point [to grant those agreed to in principle], or give the exact number of the granted private companies continuing their process,” he said.
Others, meanwhile, questioned the timing of the premier’s announcement, which came just days after Cambodia’s special rapporteur presented a damning report on land concessions at the UN Human Rights Council and after the issue surfaced at the first donor meet to be held in more than 18 months.
“I see his statement as having to do with the upcoming election next year,” said political analyst Lao Mong Hay. “Also to dilute a little bit the pressure from the international community on this specific issue… It’s just one month away from the [Asean] summit, so perhaps it is also one way of thwarting or avoiding any criticism on that issue.”
Also at the Friday meeting, the premier announced a land concession tax of $5 per hectare of land starting in the sixth year of investment and increasing at a rate of 1 per cent per year.