Even as the enormous Lower Sesan 2 hydropower dam project speeds toward reality, villagers to be displaced by the project remain in the dark about what preparations have been made for them.
Compensation and resettlement arrangements for villagers both involuntarily and voluntarily relocated from their homes and land are at the heart of land disputes across the Kingdom, however the Cambodian government has made no firm steps toward a unified policy on relocation.
“We wish these things to be sorted out between the people and the company,” Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan told the Post this week.
“We [the government] don’t want to interfere, we want to give the right to the company developer and the people to agree [on compensation arrangements],” Siphan said.
Cambodia’s constitution stipulates that a person may only be deprived of his or her ownership of land where it is in the public interest, in accordance with the law, and where fair and just compensation has been provided in advance – a position replicated in the 2001 Land Law.
However rights groups say that a lack of unity or clear guidelines at a national level make it impossible for two of the three criteria to be fulfilled.
“Fair and just compensation depends on the market value and they do not clarify this specifically in any laws – how can a company know what is the proper compensation,” said Vann Sophat, land reform project coordinator for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
“The government should have some guidelines, or a survey based on area by area studies so they can set a base cost for compensation,” Sophat said, adding that such guidelines should price improvements and permanent fixtures to the property such as housing or farming structures, electricity and wells.
But the government’s position is that these matters are better ascertained via case-by-case analysis from developer companies and national or sub-national ministerial committees, according to Siphan.
“Of course we can come across a number of complicated mechanisms with this: old policies, new activities. But this is why we suggest these cases are taken to the court.”
The government’s current policy for relocation is the leopard-skin planning parameters for preserving pre-existing villages within economic land concessions, like the spots of a leopard.
Despite this as Siphan conceded, these endeavours can become embroiled in red tape in practice and that is why, he emphasised, the impetus is on citizens to take their disputes to the courts.
The right to just terms of compensation for public acquisition of property is a common constitutional guarantee worldwide and also one of the most heavily litigated, given the malleable nature of “just terms”.
While courts may be the first place for providing guidance on the contentious constitutional guarantee in other countries, such legal debate is unlikely in Cambodia, Sophat countered.
“The court only recognises the people’s land disputes depending on their land title. They forget that in the land law there are other ways to prove [title] and that villagers might not have enough money to make a land certificate or to make a court case,” Sophat said.
As the government has acknowledged publicly, Cambodian’s court system is severely under resourced.
“Even the few laws that are in place – like you have to give people proper notice and information – the company and the authorities ignore this obligation,” Sophat said.
Beyond ignoring the obligations, some authorities are not even aware of them, according to Seak Mekong, a commune chief in a village slated for destruction as part of the construction of the Lower Sesan 2 Dam.
“Even though I am the commune chief here, I still don’t know about the compensation we will get,” Seak Mekong, chief of Sre Kor commune in Stung Treng, said.
“We haven’t been told anything, we don’t know where they will relocate us. Recently we have been living like a frog in the well – not knowing anything,” Seak Mekong said.
The villagers had put through a request for what they considered to be “fair compensation” without any negotiations with company representatives, he added.
Villagers felt that fair compensation for their involuntary eviction would include provision of new farmland at a location 15km away from the river and free electricity service for the first five years of residence in this location.