CAMBODIA: Momentum for addressing land grabbing should be sustained beyond the next election

For many years now land grabbing has been a serious issue in Cambodia, when the rich and powerful, through illicit means acquire land belonging to weaker and poorer people. In the month of May 2008 this issue came noticeably to the forefront in the approach to the general election to be held on 27 July 2008. In that month alone a radio station ran over 40 stories of land grabbing or related issues.

Those stories show that land grabbing victims have become more resourceful and have pressed harder to repossess their land. For their part, the authorities have showed more concern and responded more positively, setting a momentum for addressing land grabbing.

In general, land grabbing victims have no confidence at all in adjudicating authorities and have now appealed to their powerful Prime Minister, Hun Sen, for his personal intervention to get their land back. They have been further encouraged to seek his personal intervention after he had gone in March 2008 to a contested area in the seaport town of Sihanoukville, seized it from the grabbing company and gave it back to its rightful owners. A group of land grabbing victims, who had marched from Battambang province to Phnom Penh, said they had no confidence in the courts of law and the provincial authorities, but only in their prime minister, in adjudicating their land disputes in their favour.

This group was a part of the resourceful villagers who, on 22 May, set off on a march from their province to Phnom Penh, over a distance of 291 km, for the purpose of meeting with Hun Sen and requesting him to help them get their land back. Their march attracted a lot of publicity of their case.

They were halfway into their march when senior officials from the Ministry of Interior and from Battambang province hurriedly went to meet with them and offered to adjudicate the case in their favour. Having received such assurances, half of the marchers have agreed to return home and abandoned the march. The rest were disappointed with the promise, kept on marching and arrived in Phnom Penh in the night of 28 May.

In the same month at least three other groups of villagers from three other provinces (some 200 villagers from Kompong Cham, a group of representatives of 191 families from Ouddar Meanchey, and a group representatives of 75 families from Koh Kong) went to Phnom Penh to file their complaints against companies and the colluding authorities at Hun Sen’s residence and request him to order the return of their land.

Other victims have now used their ballot papers as leverage to get the authorities to end the grabbing of their land. In the middle of May, villagers of the Phnong indigenous minority in Mondolkiri province, frustrated by broken promises from the provincial authorities, said that if these authorities could not keep their promises, they would take their complaint against the grabbing of their communal land by two development companies to Phnom Penh and would not go and cast their votes at the forthcoming election. On 23 May the provincial authorities ended the grabbing and returned the land to them.

Around the same time a group of villagers in Kratie province, with the same frustrations, said they would lose all motivation to go and cast their votes if the provincial authorities did not end the grabbing of their land by an army unit posted in their locality. The governor of the district has since diligently investigated their case for settlement in their favour.

On 27 May the governor of Siemreap provinc began to conduct investigations into a land grabbing case involving 363 families, some three months after receiving an order to that effect from the Ministry of Interior and four months after those families had filed their complaint to that Ministry. On the same day a deputy governor of Battambang province decided to conduct investigations the day after 60 villagers representing 105 families had protested in front of the provincial government office the day before against the grabbing of villagers from another district.

Officials of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have also showed concern over the negative impact of land grabbing on their party at the election. In the land grabbing case by an army unit in Kompong Speu province, a CPP commune councilor publicly voiced, on 25 May, his worries that villagers would not vote for his party when they lost their paddy fields to the Army Tank Unit and faced hardships afterwards. A land grabbing case in Kampot province compelled the CPP provincial task force to intervene on 26 May and request Hun Sen to rescind an order, giving to four persons, 72 hectares of land belonging to a community of 680 families, thereby returning it to that community.

In the same month of May, Sar Kheng, a deputy prime minister and minister of interior, have also reacted publicly to land grabbing. On 21 May, he expressed his unhappiness with the National Authority for Land Dispute Resolution or NALDR and the other adjudicating authorities. He then proposed the empowerment of provincial authorities, which are under his authority, so that they can resolve land disputes in their respective provinces. Legislation is needed though for the provincial authorities to have any adjudicating power.

The Cambodian government should support this initiative to decentralize the adjudication of land grabbing issues. The least difficult effort would be to empower the provincial cadastral commissions for unregistered land (land without title deeds) already created under the Land Law of 2001 to adjudicate land disputes subject appeal to the national cadastral commission also already created under the same law.

In the meantime, the present government and/or its successor should sustain beyond the next election the efforts of all authorities as shown in the month of May 2008 to meet the grievances of land grabbing victims and return their land. All these authorities together with courts of law should do more to win the confidence of the public in general and that of land grabbing victims in particular. Apart from diligence, all should have independence and impartiality in the investigation and adjudication of all disputes.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-151-2008
Countries : Cambodia,