Prime Minister Hun Sen instructed the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction to work with authorities in the six provinces around the Tonle Sap Lake to rezone parts of Zone 3 – and prepare land titles for the residents – before Khmer New Year. He said this needed to be done to provide stability to the people who had resided there for generations.

He gave the order while distributing rice seed to more than 3,000 flood-afflicted farmers in Kampong Chhnang province on October 26. The prime minister had previously performed the same service in Siem Reap, Banteay Meanchey, Battambang and Pursat provinces.

“Some of the families living in what is now Zone 3 have been there for hundreds of years. Therefore, we must clarify the status of their homes. This may mean re-zoning parts of Zone 3 as Zone 2, or even 1,” he said.

“I have advised Deputy Prime Minister Chea Sophara to cooperate with provincial authorities and get it done by Khmer New Year. This gives them a few months to complete the work,” he added.

The prime minister said it was important for the families to feel secure in their homes. He acknowledged that the problem is complicated, and partly his fault.

“I can admit that I made a mistake when I signed the 2012 sub-decree which established the three zones. I actually recall building schools for them in the past, some on solid ground and some floating. I believe we can take care of our people while taking care of the Tonle Sap Lake. Please allow the people to go on living in their ancestral villages and do not move them,” he added.

He made it clear that although they would be given land of their own, they were not to cut down large parts of the flooded forests. He suggested that an area equal ten per cent of their land could be cleared for use as common public land.

“Over the years, these people have been living in uncertainty. Where else could they go? What could they do? Now, I am providing a solution for them. If powerful people or criminal enterprises were occupying flooded forest land, they must be punished to the fullest extent of the law and the land returned to the state. These innocent villagers should be free live where they have always lived,” he added.

Land management ministry spokesman Seng Lot could not be reached for comment on October 26.

In May, the prime minister restored land to 1,658 families in the area, while also opening 6,000ha of conservation land up for public use.

Yuk Senglong, executive director of Fisheries Action Coalition Team, said the prime minister’s measures to address issues around the Tonle Sap Lake had advantages and disadvantages.

However, he considered that these measures are involved in redefining conservation areas and protected areas by clearly distinguishingthe areas where people are living.

“Now is a good time to update the boundaries of the different zones. Hey were laid out many years ago, and the situation on the ground has changed. For example, some places are still designated as protected areas of the lake itself, but are now arable land where people could support themselves,” he said.

Senglong expected that any updates or rezoning of boundaries in the modifications in the Tonle Sap region would be carried out with accuracy and transparency.