PRIME Minister Hun Sen on Thursday warned commune councillors and village chiefs not to do deals involving state property, saying the government would not recognise them.
Delivering the closing speech at an agricultural conference, he told commune councillors and village chiefs - "even powerful people" - to stop signing agreements to sell state property such as flooded forests.
"The government has never authorised councillors and village chiefs to sign away land titles. Illegal land grabs will be punished by law, no matter who you are," he said, adding that failure to crack down would lead to further land disputes. He said land clearances must also be monitored.
Khun Sokhem, the commune chief of Prek Dambang in Kandal province, said some villagers who farmed rice on a local lake bed during the dry season had sold that land.
"When we learned it was state land, we refused to sign," she said. "The parties agreed to the sale without the recognition of the local authority."
She said the problem had been exacerbated by the rapid rise in the price of land in recent years, but that had dissipated as land prices had dropped.
Ny Chakrya, head of monitoring at the local human rights group Adhoc, said Hun Sen's comments might prevent further disputes, but said the government should have acted five years ago. "This is not a new issue. He may recognise it, but it seems too late."