Corruption and land grabbing are hindering development in Cambodia, scaring away investment and jeopardizing the country’s future, US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli said Thursday.
“Cambodia cannot afford the luxury of corruption,” Mussomeli said at an anti-corruption conference in Phnom Penh. “It is too far behind its neighbors due to the tragedies of its recent past.”
Mussomeli called on the government to pass the long-awaited anti-corruption law, and support its implementation. He also said a 2001 Land Law is not being enforced justly, “particularly when powerful vested interests are involved.”
Finally, he discounted the National Land Dispute Authority as having “no appreciable effect yet on land disputes.” To make his point, the ambassador cited the May and June evictions of thousands of villages from the Bassac community and Koh Pich. “Any conflict over this private land dispute properly belonged in the courts, but somehow City Hall became involved, creating a non-transparent process that was confused at best,” he said.
In the case of Koh Pich, Mussomeli said, the court refused to “independently consider the merits of the case.” Instead, it “blindly” accepted the city’s interpretation of the land law. That interpretation would make “every single resident of an island in Cambodia an illegal squatter.”
Mussomeli said the situation is even worse in the provinces. In Mondolkiri, he said, “there are serious allegations that a foreign company was awarded 10,000 hectares of land—the legal limit—even though they already cleared and are planting 16,000 to 20,000 hectares of land.
“The award documents apparently state the intention to grant up to 199,999 hectares of land—nearly 20 times the allowable limit in the land law,” he added.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said Prime Minister Hun Sen is aware of the problem of corruption and is acting to eliminate it. “Hun Sen does not tolerate corrupt officials,” he said.
Mussomeli said the problem is systemic and has corroded even basic institutions. Children, the ambassador said, “go to school and what is the first lesson they learn—that they need to pay their teachers a little extra to get taught?”