Main photo: Protesters call in Phnom Penh for government authorities to intervene in land-rights disputes, Jan. 13, 2020 (RFA).
Cambodia’s government is unable to resolve the country’s myriad land disputes because many of them involve senior officials, Minister of Interior Sar Kheng said in a rare acknowledgement Tuesday, as a rights group urged authorities to take action against all perpetrators of illegal land grabs equally.
Speaking at a conference that included provincial governors and local authorities from across the country, Sar Kheng did not disclose the names of the involved officials but said that at least one of the disputes involved one of Cambodia’s deputy prime ministers.
“They are grabbing land and causing problems [for us] to resolve [the disputes]—they are all senior government officials,” he said, adding that several of the cases were further complicated because residents lacked land titles.
Cambodia’s land issues date from the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, which forced large-scale evacuations and relocations, followed by a period of mass confusion over land rights and the formation of squatter communities when the refugees returned in the 1990s after a decade of civil war.
Sar Kheng specifically raised the example of Mondulkiri province, where he said several senior officials are “competing with each other to grab land,” resulting in “many unresolved disputes.”
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service on Tuesday, a member of the indigenous Punong community in Mondulkiri named Kroeung Tola said disputes in the region are on the rise because local authorities are too frightened to take action against the well-connected.
“The rich and powerful—if they want land, they just point their fingers take it all,” he said.
“The situation is complicated because these are the people who are involved in the disputes.”
Another villager named Nin Channa said “powerful people” backed by “court officials” are clearing land to grab from a local mountain and residents have been ordered not to complain.
She said that the local forest and water resources, as well as an indigenous graveyard, had been destroyed in the process.
“No one will listen to our concerns and the local authorities are pressuring us,” she said.
“They are encroaching on and clearing our land, affecting our wells and burial grounds.”
The acknowledgement of complicity in land grabs by senior government officials follows a July 3 order issued by Prime Minister Hun Sen instructing the Ministries of Environment, Agriculture, and Land Management to register the land of villagers who have lived in protected or conservation areas for at least 10 years. He also called on local authorities to protect some portion of forests for community use.
Eang Mengly, Mondulkiri provincial coordinator for Cambodian rights group Adhoc, told RFA that local authorities fear retribution for taking action against government officials and their relatives who illegally clear land and urged the central government to step in.
“The national authorities must take immediate action, without discrimination,” he said.
The government recently detained former Ministry of Justice Undersecretary of State Seng Sovannara for illegally grabbing around 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres) of land in Mondulkiri.
Also on Tuesday, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court ordered Battambang provincial deputy governor Sou Arafat and business tycoon (Okhna) Sorng Thorn detained in Prey Sar Prison pending trial for corruption and an illegal land grab that displaced some 300 families in the province’s Koas Krala district beginning in 2015.
Yin Mengly, Adhoc’s provincial coordinator in Battambang, welcomed the move, calling it “a positive step” that would “provide hope for the villagers” and allow them to earn a living again.
He noted that seven villagers had been sentenced to one year in jail and handed fines after Sorng Thorn filed a complaint against them.
Yin Mengly said that following the court’s actions, many local authorities are rushing to resolve land disputes, but he criticized them for waiting until the central government had intervened.
“We want a substantive resolution, not a quick one,” he said.
A villager representative named Morm Kat told RFA that Sorng Thorn’s interference had prevented residents from cultivating their farms, pushing several of them further into poverty.
“The villagers couldn’t even step on the land,” he said.
Sorng Thorn had controlled around 10,000 hectares (24,700 acres) of land, some 100 hectares (250 acres) of which belonged to the 300 families.