For Villagers Losing Land, Hun Sen Is Last Resort

Three separate communities from across the country were in Phnom Penh on Monday to petition Prime Minister Hun Sen to personally intervene to help settle their various land disputes.

Communities affected by alleged land grabs in Phnom Penh and beyond often appeal directly to Mr. Hun Sen for help, submitting petitions with his cabinet, even staging protests to wave airbrushed photographs of the first couple and pledge their eternal devotion.

But the confluence of representatives from three far-flung communities in Phnom Penh at once—from Banteay Meanchey, Kompong Chhnang and Kratie provinces—was further proof that the government institutions that should be solving their disputes were as broken as ever, said rights group Adhoc.

“The commune, district and provincial officials don’t solve their problems because they ignore their cases and wait, hoping they will stay quiet,” said Latt Ky, the head of Adhoc’s land and natural resources program.

“So they go to the one person who has the power, the prime minister. But we have to ask: Does Prime Minister Hun Sen have 1,000 hands to solve every problem at the same time?”

Ouk Taing was one of 30 villagers who made the trip to Phnom Penh on Monday on behalf of more than 300 families in Banteay Meanchey province who have been trying to wrest back some 2,100 hectares of land from a private company’s rubber plantation for the past decade.

The 63-year-old rice farmer said they tried settling their dispute with local authorities for years—to no avail.

“We all came to Phnom Penh to ask Prime Minister Hun Sen to intervene because the local authorities are corrupt and ignore our problems,” he said, after they had handed their petition to a member of Mr. Hun Sen’s cabinet at Wat Botum Park, now a popular spot for out-of-town groups to file their complaints with the prime minister.

“We have tried to ask for help from authorities at the district, commune and province, but they have not done anything to solve the problem. They just stamp the [complaint],” he said.

“I think only Samdech Prime Minister Hun Sen has the power to solve land disputes because he is the leader.”

Oum Sophy came with a group to Phnom Penh from Kompong Chhnang province, where 51 families have been locked in a years-long land dispute with a private company that belongs to the wife of Mines and Energy Minister Suy Sem.

Local authorities set up an ad hoc committee to try to resolve the case with a compensation offer but did not invite a single representative from the families to join, while a recent deal struck with a few of the families has failed to end the dispute.

“We came to Phnom Penh because the provincial authorities have no solution for us,” she said. “The National Assembly creates laws for the poor people to obey, but the rich can break the law.”

But officials in the provinces that the petitioners came from said the fault lay squarely with the villagers, and unscrupulous middlemen who knowingly sell them land that’s not for sale.

“How can I solve it?” said Banteay Meanchey governor Kousoum Saroeuth. “They’re illegally occupying [reforested] land and some of them were cheated by brokers who tell them to come to Phnom Penh to protest.”

Yet more villagers were in Phnom Penh on Monday from Kratie, hoping Mr. Hun Sen will let them keep the state land that some 400 families started moving onto in 2009 but have now been evicted from twice. The families have been offered new land elsewhere but say it’s no good for growing crops.

“Everyone has problems,” said Kratie provincial governor Sar Chamrong. “They go to Adhoc, and to [U.N. human rights envoy to Cambodia] Surya Subedi for help, but you must know that they live on protected state land.”

The vast majority of appeals to Mr. Hun Sen go unanswered. Every now and then, though, the prime minister does step in.

After several years of bitter protest by families from Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak neighborhood against their pending evictions for a senator’s high-end real estate project, often appealing to Mr. Hun Sen, the prime minister in mid-2011 personally signed a sub-decree cutting a piece of land out of the project site for them. In relatively short order, more than 600 of the families received the land titles they had been demanding for years and got to keep their homes.

Mr. Ky, of Adhoc, said the prime minister’s decision to circumvent the usual state institution only encouraged those in long-running land disputes to keep coming to Phnom Penh. But he also warned that the practice would keep those institutions enfeebled.

In 2006, the government by royal decree set up the National Authority for Land Dispute Resolution, an inter-ministerial body specifically designed to deal with land disputes no one else could resolve.

By the National Authority’s own admission, however, it’s been a complete failure.

At the Ministry of Land Management’s annual meeting last year, National Authority chairman Bin Chhin, a deputy prime minister, said he had not solved a single dispute in the past seven years. Expecting him to solve problems stemming from land deals the ministries of agriculture or environment struck with agribusiness firms, he said, simply defied logic.

“Why have we not solved them?” he asked rhetorically at the time. “The National Authority for Land Dispute Resolution doesn’t grant economic land concessions. We have no right to grant them. When an [economic land concession] is granted, they don’t ask us if it should be granted…. So we need to solve it instead of [them]? It is not very logical.”

Adhoc says the National Authority was flawed from the beginning because the royal decree that created it fails to explain exactly when it should or should not step in. The decree merely gives it the authority to get involved when a dispute is “beyond the competence of the National Cadastral Commission.”

Again circumventing usual channels and stepping into the fray, Mr. Hun Sen last year ordered an immediate freeze on the granting of new economic land concessions and launched a nationwide push to issue hundreds of thousands of families with new land titles.

Despite the effort, rights groups say land disputes have continued to rise. Adhoc says it got involved in 135 new land disputes across the country last year, nearly double the 70 new disputes it handled the year before.

And despite the usual lull in land disputes leading up to the national election in July 2013, Adhoc and fellow rights group Licadho both say that disputes are once again back on the rise this year.

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