In a session that lasted less than 60 minutes and saw very little discussion, the Senate yesterday approved the draft law on expropriation, a law that critics say leaves loopholes for abuse by officials and offers limited guarantees on compensation for expropriated property.
During the session, 50 out of 52 senators voted in favor of accepting the law on expropriation without making any recommendations on amending the draft law in any way.
The law allows the government to seize private land for public infrastructure projects, a power that many housing and land rights groups fear will be used by unscrupulous officials to deprive private property holder of their land and buildings.
During the disturbingly-short debate of such a crucial piece of legislation, just three of the 52 senators present discussed the law and only one, SRP Senator Kong Korm, voiced his concern.
“I am pessimistic about the implementation of this law. I don’t believe in the people in the Expropriation Law Committee,” Mr Korm said, referring to a government-appointed committee referenced in the law that would be in charge of deciding what amount of compensation should be paid for expropriated land and property.
Mr Korm also said past practices had shown government officials were willing to evict people without fair compensation despite the fact that their right to compensation for eviction was specified in the Constitution and the Land Law.
“When they want to give land that is owned by people to a company they usually create the documents to turn it into state land so they could confiscate the land with little or no compensation,” Mr Korm told his fellow senators.
Funcinpec Senator Pov Piseth said he supported the law on expropriation, stating that it would help the government “develop the country.”
“This law is important for the government to continue the Rectangular Strategy of the government to develop the country as the government recommends. I support this law,” Mr Piseth said.
SRP National Assembly member Yim Sovann said he was not surprised most senators made little or no effort to discuss the draft law, adding he thought many senators, like the National Assembly members, simply did the government’s bidding.
“The senators have never changed one word of a law when the Assembly sent that law to the Senate,” he said of the upper house’s record on being a check or balance on either the executive or the legislature.
On Dec 29, the National Assembly passed the expropriation law without amendments after heated debate between minority SRP and majority CPP lawmakers.
“Senate and Assembly has to check the government but for now the Senate and Assembly do what the government wants,” Mr Sovann lamented. He added that it would now take between two to four weeks before King Norodom Sihamoni signs the law on expropriation.
Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said that because of the large legislative majority of the CPP in both the Assembly and Senate, and recently reduced public access to National Assembly and Senate sessions, there was now less public debate and government accountability than ever before.
“Our legislators in this mandate they have a problem…. There is less discussion, it’s not open. This is an issue. There’s a lack of transparency, accountability. It’s worse than previous mandates,” he said, adding, “The Expropriation Law will affect a lot people, but there is not a lot of discussion about that.”
Sia Phearum, secretariat director of the Housing Rights Task Force, said housing rights groups had sent recommendations regarding the draft law to the National Assembly members, while a recent community initiative had petitioned senators to amend the expropriation law. Both attempts to change the draft law had now failed, he said.
“We heard some community initiative had collected thousands of thumbprints to ask the senators to reconsider and give a recommendation to the National Assembly [to amend the law], but there was no result,” he said.
Mr Phearum said NGOs were “very concerned” the new law could negatively affect the land rights of poor communities, especially in locations where new government infrastructure was due to be developed, such as in Phnom Penh and near national roads and railways lines that are due to be rehabilitated.
He added that housing rights groups also had little knowledge of the details of the government plans to develop infrastructure.
“Phnom Penh needs to grow fast for development…but we don’t know about the municipality’s plans. They never show us the master plan of how they want to develop Phnom Penh,” Mr Phearum said.
NGOs and opposition parties have criticized the expropriation law for employing vague language and leaving large loopholes for abuse, while they have said it lacked in its requirements for consulting affected property owners.
Another point of criticism of the draft has been the mentioning of an unspecified independent committee or an agent of the government’s choice to determine the market value of properties expropriated by the government.