Government officials yesterday refuted claims of a reported sharp rise in land protests this year, saying protests had not increased and authorities and the courts were handling land disputes and related protests properly.
Human rights group Adhoc said Friday that Cambodians were increasingly turning to public protests to demand resolutions to the country’s frequent land disputes, as the group recorded 145 land protests this year, more than double the number of land protests in all of 2009.
Adhoc said people were resorting to protests because they had lost hope in the government and the courts to solve land disputes.
Pol Lim, secretary of state at the Ministry of Interior, who is in charge of monitoring land disputes, said he had no figures on the number of land dispute protests but denied they were on the rise.
“There are a few protests,” he said, referring to cases at Boeng Kak lake in Phnom Penh, and in Battambang, Kompong Speu, Koh Kong and Ratanakkiri provinces.
Mr Lim defended the use of force to disperse land dispute protests, which according to Adhoc occurred 17 times this year, because these protests were affecting public order.
“We have implemented the laws by maintaining public order,” he said. “They have the right to demonstrate in a place and [armed] forces did nothing wrong because they dragged villagers into the bus or moved them away.”
Adhoc reported that 34 land dispute protests this year occurred at courts, with protesters demanding the release of detained village representatives.
Prom Sidhra, secretary of state at the Justice Ministry, said regardless of the ensuing protests, such arrests were necessary because villagers had damaged private property.
“They committed something such as pulling down rubber trees belonging to the [land development] companies,” he said.
Yeng Virak, director of the Cambodian Legal Education Center, said people across the country felt legal mechanisms offered no solutions to land disputes.
“People have exhausted the system,” he said. “It’s not good. It seems protest is their last resort. They go to every national institution and the courts, [but] very often they do not get any proper remedy.”
“I am afraid there will be more and more protests,” he added, “It’s really alarming. I wish the government policymakers take this issue seriously.”
Chea Vannath, an independent political observer, warned the rise in protests indicated pressure on land was rising.
At the same time, she said the increase in protests showed peaceful activism had spread in Cambodia.
“Once we were at war and people used guns when they were upset to express their dissatisfaction,” she said, “The positive thing is they now know how join forces and use peaceful means to protest.