Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a sub-decree on May 27 reassigning more than 34sq km of land in Zone 3 of the protected area surrounding Tonle Sap Lake to Zone 2. The rezoning will allow restricted use of the land for the 1,658 households in Pursat province that rely on it.

The move was a departure from his earlier strict orders to combat wetlands encroachment and illegal fishing, which he issued in November of last year and has since landed dozens of people in court.

From the north going in a clockwise direction, Tonle Sap Lake – Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake by surface area – is bordered by Siem Reap, Kampong Thom, Kampong Chhnang, Pursat and Battambang – with Banteay Meanchey to the northwest also incorporated into the zoning system.

That system has classified the land around the lake into three zones. Private residences and land ownership is allowed only in Zone 1, whereas land use in Zone 2 is restricted to certain subsistence activities and Zone 3 is a strictly protected conservation area.

Effective immediately, the May 27 sub-decree covers 3,448.77ha in parts of three northeastern Pursat districts: Bakan, Kandieng and Krakor – from west to east.

In Bakan, the move will benefit 367 households, by downgrading 1,156.60ha – stretching across the communes of O’Taporng, Metoek and Boeung Bot Kandorl – to Zone 2.

In Kandieng, the 1,169.72ha rezoned in Sre Sdok, Sya, Raingtoel and Kanhchor communes will benefit 585 households.

And in Krakor, the 1,122.45ha in Kampong Por, O’Sandan, Kampong Luong and Ansar Chambak communes changed to Zone 2 will benefit 706 households.

Hun Sen instructed Bin Chhin – the Minister in Charge of the Council of Ministers – and the land management, interior and water resources ministries, as well as provincial and other relevant authorities to enforce the sub-decree.

Ahead of the release of the sub-decree, Hun Sen also instructed authorities in the six provinces to re-evaluate the protected area zoning in the wetlands surrounding the lake, to ensure that long-time residents and long-established local communities would not be required to relocate.

His audio message posted on his official Facebook page on May 27 was addressed to land management minister Chea Sophara and other relevant ministries, as well as provincial and district governors and commune chiefs in the six provinces.

Hun Sen told them to consider downgrading segments of Zones 2 and 3 where communities have been set up for a long time, especially those with pagodas already built, reassuring the public that no long-standing residents would be displaced.

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

He also instructed the officials to revise the borders between Zones 2 and 3 and focus on any potential trade-offs between forest conservation areas and land used for crop cultivation.

“It’s not hard. If we were able to sign these things into law in the first place, we can also rescind them and revise those boundaries.

“I appeal to the people not to infringe on the new areas. For those who have been relying on them, there must be adjustments made to the legal standards and the border posts demarcating Zone 3 have to be relocated to redraw Zone 2, and the same must be done for Zone 2 areas downgraded to Zone 1,” Hun Sen said.

A map showing the Tonle Sap Lake zones. CHEA SOPHARA VIA FB

Hun Sen warned, however, that this new plan would not apply to locations “taken by rich people”.

These latest policy directives regarding the lake come after a series of breaches of Zone 3 where large swaths of wetlands were being cleared and used for rice cultivation. This could have had a potentially catastrophic effect on the lake’s fish population that uses those flooded mangrove forests as spawning grounds.

The scale of the violations and the threat to the lake’s ecosystem prompted the government to take serious action starting in November, with a number of locals and government officials landing in court as a result.

In December, the Banteay Meanchey Provincial Court detained Em Nouy – chief of Phnom Leap commune in in Preah Netr Preah district, along with a reporter from the Khmer Student News Unit, on charges of illegal encroachment, occupation and sale of state land in Zone 3 of the Tonle Sap Lake wetlands.

In January, the Battambang Provincial Court placed three people in pre-trial detention in connection with the illegal occupation of land in the flooded forests of Zone 3 in the province.

Another three people were also placed in pre-trial detention in Pursat province for the same offence in March, and in early May a group of 14 people were arrested for illegally clearing land in Zone 3 for growing rice.

The cases of two senior police officials charged with several criminal counts were referred to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court last December over their involvement in the destruction of the lake’s flooded forests in Kampong Chhnang province’s Kampong Leng district.

Following an announcement by the premier to combat illegal encroachment, authorities said that 15,120 families voluntarily returned 63,418ha of Zone 3 wetlands to the state starting from late November last year through May of this year.

The authorities have also planted tens of thousands saplings on some of the reclaimed land, according to the Fisheries Administration (FiA).

Separately, from March 2 to May 25, a total of 47 illegal fishing cases involving 48 suspects were sent to courts in the provinces around Tonle Sap. The arrests were made as a result of the inter-ministerial commission for the prevention and suppression of fishing crimes in cooperation with provincial authorities around the lake.

A total of 25 out of the 48 suspects were remanded into custody by provincial courts to await trial. The courts also issued summonses for questioning to 19 others for the same offences, according to the data compiled by the FiA and seen by The Post on May 26.

Pursat and Siem Reap provinces were the most “active” in the crackdown on fishing offences among the provinces around the lake. Pursat province authorities arrested 21 fishermen and 14 of them landed in court and were placed in pre-trial detention. Siem Reap had 15 suspects that were sent to court, five of whom were placed in pre-trial detention.

Am Sam Ath, deputy director for rights group LICADHO, supported the rezoning and granting of the land to people who have been cultivating it and living there for a long time.

However, he was concerned that the land could end up falling into the hands of the rich and powerful if not handled in a transparent and just way.

“The land should really be for people who rely on it, not for development by the powerful or the rich. To protect Tonle Sap Lake, illegal fishing and encroachment must be effectively prevented from now on. The local authorities in charge should not just wait for an order from the government leader, they should simply do their jobs and fulfil their duties all of the time,” he said.