As protesters from some 50 communities marched in the capital to mark World Habitat Day yesterday, a ruling party politician pledged to not only resolve a raft of land disputes, but push a policy of “on-site development” – redevelopment that does not remove people from their communities – over mass relocations.
Speaking to a crowd of about 1,000 outside the National Assembly, Cambodian People’s Party lawmaker Lork Kheng, deputy chair of the assembly’s Commission on Human Rights and Complaints, said she would push government departments to solve land disputes – an issue rights group Adhoc says has affected more than 700,000 people since 2000.
“We support on-site development … [and] not pushing people from their homes,” Kheng said. “We will push for other [government] departments to solve these problems. Every one of your requests will be debated within the commission.”
It’s not the first time Kheng has promised to resolve land disputes through the National Assembly.
Early last month, the lawmaker vowed to end the years-long dispute between the politically connected KDC International company and villagers in Kampong Chnnang’s Lorpeang district “within a week”, as well as other disputes within a month.
While the government ended a long-running conflict between villagers in Kratie and a South Korean agricultural company last month, many other disputes – including the KDC dispute, remain unresolved.
Contacted after the protest, Kheng did not say which disputes would be given priority, nor would she speak about the status of the conflict involving KDC, a company for whom she is alleged to have at times acted as a representative. Despite the delay, Kheng said, progress was being made on resolving land disputes.
“Since Prime Minister Hun Sen’s announcement, we have done a lot of work on this,” she said. Kheng was referring to a speech made by the prime minister in August, when he absolved himself of responsibility for evictions – instead blaming “lazy” provincial officials for damage caused.
“We have found solutions in Kratie, Battambang, Kampong Chhnang – and some other provinces are still under review. We really want to find justice for the people, but we have a lot of cases,” she said.
As part of the World Habitat Day event yesterday, demonstrators brought a mock house as a symbol of what many had lost. The crowd left the National Assembly on tuk-tuks, motorbikes and on foot, chanting and marching toward Wat Botum.
A group of about 60 police and Daun Penh security guards stood behind a barricade set up in the street. Speeches by activists including Yorn Bopha continued as a representative from City Hall accepted the group’s petition.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party also promised to resolve the land disputes at yesterday’s event. “We cannot allow disputes like the previous ones.… We urge those involved in relevant departments to [solve the problems],” lawmaker Ke Sovannaroth said.
Sia Phearum, secretariat director of the Housing Rights Task Force, welcomed the pledge from the CPP and said that the promise of on-site development “sounds great”.
“[Kheng] said this mandate is different from previous mandates,” he said. “So we hope that she will not cheat the voters.”
In practice, however, promises to keep villagers in their own community after redevelopment have brought mixed results. Borei Keila, for example, remains unresolved more than a decade after “on site” redevelopment began.
Villagers were promised new housing adjacent to where they lived in exchange for their land, but many were ultimately denied land and shipped to squalid relocation sites outside the capital.
Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong promised to end the Borei Keila and Boeung Kak disputes almost 18 months ago, but neither have been resolved.
“The new governor has shown his commitment,” Phearum said. “He has opened doors, spoken to NGOs … but the problem is still slow.”
Many of yesterday’s demonstrators were from provincial areas. Some, including Lorpeang villager Reach Seyma, were dismissive of Kheng’s promises, saying it was just a performance for a big crowd.
“They seldom allow the poor to live near their development project,” he said. “They prefer to buy other land to exchange with us.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SHANE WORRELL