Ethnic minority villagers and NGOs appealed Monday to Cambodia’s international donors to apply pressure on the government to end the grabbing of indigenous people’s land by the rich and powerful and to hold the government to its years-old agreements to implement protective measures for indigenous minorities.
“Donors should help ethnic communities,” Um Mich, a 46-year-old ethnic Kuoy villager from Kompong Thom province, told a news conference at the office of Legal Aid of Cambodia, where 54 ethnic minority villagers had gathered.
“There are many countries; they gave the money to the government. The royal government received the money to reduce poverty, but on the contrary people are becoming poorer and poorer,” Mr Um Mich said ahead of today’s quarterly Government-Donor Coordination Committee Meeting.
The government should resolve disputes and register communal lands of the country’s ethnic minorities, he added.
The government and international donors have failed to protect indigenous communal land, LAC and three other human rights organization said in a statement at the new conference, adding that it had been seven years since the government had already agreed with donors to register communal land.
In the meantime, “not a single square meter of indigenous communal property has been registered,” the group said in their statement.
On Friday, the government issued a sub-decree on indigenous land protection.
The joint statement also pointed out that the 2001 Land Law had not been implemented to protect indigenous communities, no interim protective measures for indigenous land were ever taken ahead of approval of Friday’s sub-decree and no other groups, bar the government, were consulted on the sub-decree’s creation, according to the NGOs. All of these points had been agreed upon with donors and the government as far back as 2002, the statement continued.
In March, government officials said the delays in the approval of the indigenous land protection sub-decree were caused by discussions at Council level over the use of the term “indigenous” versus “ethnic” minority. The members eventually settled on “indigenous.”
“The donors must do something to make the government help indigenous people,” Ven Samin, an ethnic Suy villager from Kompong Speu province, said at the new conference.
“I appeal to donors that gave the money to the government to do whatever to involve indigenous people,” she said, adding that indigenous communities are “poor and victims” and should be consulted when the government issues private land concessions on their communal lands.
“Now we are getting poorer and losing the land,” said 47-year-old ethnic Jarai villager Romam Hil from Ratanakkiri province, who has been protesting since 2004 over 450 hectares of land that was taken by Keat Kolney, the powerful sister of Finance Minister Keat Chhon.
In February, Ratanakkiri`s provincial court prosecutor quietly dismissed a two-year-old criminal lawsuit lodged by the villagers from O’Yadaw district that accused Keat Kolney and local authorities of falsifying documents and tricking villagers into unknowingly selling their land at a pittance to the minister’s sister.
The case is representative of how interim protective measures, ahead of the new sub-decree approved Friday, “have not been implemented at all,” the NGOs said in their statement.
The NGOs also called on donor countries and institutions, as well as the government to ensure that protective measures are taken, indigenous communities are recognized as legal entities in protecting land rights, and outstanding complaints lodged by indigenous communities are resolved fairly.
Sourng Sophea, a lawyer at the Community Legal Education Center, which provides free legal aid to Ratanakkiri villagers, said after the conference that the 54 villagers will submit a statement to donors and the government at their meeting in Phnom Penh today.
“[They] plan to go to [the Council for the Development of Cambodia], but maybe they will not let us meet the donors, they have one statement to inform the donors about their worries,” Mr Sourng Sophea said.
“They hope the donors might have influence on the government, which has also promised things [to donors] relating to rights protection, so this is one hope,” he added.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap maintained by telephone that the government had successfully kept its promises with international aid donors, which was proved by the continuous increase in aid to the government over many years.
Mr Cheam Yeap said there were cases of land grabbing by the rich and powerful, but he added: “our ethnic villagers are also bad, acting to incite, sell and grab.”
Donors cannot influence the government, Mr Cheam Yeap said, adding: “They can not put pressure on the royal government, it is our integrity, sovereignty.”
“But, the royal government has never ignored indigenous people, we have land and the Constitution. We don’t just protect the city people,” he said.
The US Embassy and the European Commission declined to comment Monday on the appeal made by the ethnic minority villagers to raise their concerns at today’s meeting.