Inner city students enlisted into Prime Minister Hun Sen’s nationwide land-titling program have been getting a taste of the rural life and some of them are ready to come home.
Prepped with a two-day crash course in surveying, more than 1,000 youths have been dispatched across the Kingdom to help tackle the innumerable land disputes that have long simmered around the country.
The volunteers are part of the premier’s ambitious scheme to measure 1.2 million hectares of land in six to eight months for 350,000 families affected by economic land concessions.
They may be decked out in army fatigues, but these youngsters are far from battle hardened, and the conditions, as well as the work, are starting wear some of them down.
Chhern Yong, 25, said he was struggling to measure large plots of land without adequate supervision from the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction and was not given enough training.
“We used to live easily in Phnom Penh, but when we come to rural areas, I feel bored because I only see forest and mountains every day,” he said, quickly adding that he was becoming “accustomed to the situation”.
Yong, a Royal University of Law and Economics student, has been stationed in Banteay Meanchey province’s Thma Puok district and worries about the unfamiliar surroundings.
“We have some difficulties: lack of clean water, staying in pagodas, but what is the worst is the dangerous mines. We feel afraid when we put up border posts,” he said.
Am Sam Ath, a senior investigator with the rights group Licadho, said authorities would not have sent students to areas where there were still mine fields, but that he had other concerns about the program.
“What I am concerned about is that settling land disputes for victims is done transparently and independently – not under pressure from any side,” he said.
Nicolas Agostini, a Technical Assistant at the rights group Adhoc, said he did not understand how students were supposed to understand complex legislation governing land claims that had taken him years to decipher, after just two days of training.
“Of course we feel that there are problems. We feel that the students maybe do not have the authority to do this or to face powerful individuals who have concessions or land titles,” he said. “We have doubts about how it is going to be implemented; I think the obstacles are tremendous.”
Kok Phoung, who is the team leader of a group of volunteers deployed in Pursat province’s Krakor district, said rather than intimidation from company officials, it was short water supplies and the threat of disease that were his main concerns.
“All work has difficulties. But in the interest of living in peace, though we face difficulties, I try to overcome it,” he said. “What we are worried about is dengue fever ... because some of the places we work are in the forest.”