Prime Minister Hun Sen has instructed authorities in six provinces to re-evaluate protected area zoning in the flooded forests surrounding the Tonle Sap Lake, to ensure that long-time residents of local communities would not be required to relocate.

From the north in clockwise direction, Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake by surface area is bordered by five provinces – Siem Reap, Kampong Thom, Kampong Chhnang, Pursat and Battambang – with Banteay Meanchey in the northwest also encompassed in the system.

The Tonle Sap Area has been classified into three zones. Private residence and land ownership is allowed only in Zone 1, whereas land use in Zone 2 is restricted to certain subsistence activities. Zone 3 is strictly protected area.

The instruction comes in a special message after a series of breaches in Zone 3 prompted the government to take serious actions starting in November, with a number of locals and officials landing in court as a result.

The message was posted on the premier’s official Facebook page on May 27, addressed to Minister of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction Chea Sophara and ministry officials, as well as provincial and district governors and commune chiefs in the six provinces.

Hun Sen told the officials to consider downgrading segments of zones 2 and 3 where communities had been set up for a long time, especially those with pagodas, assuring that none of their long-standing residents would be displaced.

“I stress now that the authorities of the six provinces have to be responsible for their own people, both at the provincial, district and commune levels,” he said.

He also instructed the officials to revise the borders between zones 2 and 3, with attention to potential trade-offs between forest conservation and crop cultivation.

“It’s not hard. If we were able to sign things, we can also rescind them and revise boundaries. And I appeal to the people not to infringe on the new areas. For those who have been relying on them, there must be adjustments to the legal standards, and border posts demarcating Zone 3 have to be relocated to redraw Zone 2, or Zone 2 downgraded to Zone 1,” Hun Sen said.

But he warned that the instruction would not apply to locations “taken by rich people”.

He also told the public works minister to work with other authorities such as the water resources and agriculture ministries, the Tonle Sap Authority and officials from the six aforementioned provinces.