Prime Minister Hun Sen’s land-titling program must either be significantly reformed or scrapped altogether as its current manifestation has distributed land unfairly, had denied ethnic minorities of their land rights and allowed the rich and powerful to unfairly benefit from the process, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.
The HRW report, which calls on Cambodia’s aid donors to demand the program either be reformed or canceled outright, comes as the program has been placed on hold by Mr. Hun Sen until after the national election on July 28.
“While some have benefitted from the campaign, in other cases the scheme has amounted to a land grab by powerful interests,” HRW Asia director Brad Adams said in the statement.
“The campaign is being conducted in a secretive and bullying manner in which independent organizations are prevented from monitoring what is happening and local residents are threatened if they complain,” he said.
Changes that should be made to the year-old program included the introduction of public consultation, a transparent monitoring program, an independent complaint process and compensation for those who are denied land titles in favor of concession holders or others, according to the statement.
Launched last June and dubbed Directive No. 1, the program had by May distributed more than 125,000 individual land titles, while Mr. Hun Sen has said that the target is to eventually reach 470,000 families living on land covering a total of 1.8 million hectares.
However, according to HRW, villagers who were thrown off their land in Kompong Speu province’s Phnom Sruoch district told researchers that their attempts to prove their ownership of land “illegally taken from them” by people linked to the ruling CPP were brusquely rebuffed by the student volunteers who are implementing the prime minister’s project.
In nearby Thpong district, researchers were told that ethnic minority community members were urged to accept individual ownership titles—unknowingly losing their right to a communal land title, which is preferable as it makes it impossible for outside interests to then purchase the land.
Spokesman for the Council of Ministers Phay Siphan said Thursday that despite the cases cited in the HRW report, most people had benefited greatly from the land-titling program.
“The majority of the people are very happy with it. They now have land for their own economic growth,” Mr. Siphan said. “The NGOs and the international organizations are not the people,” he said, noting that 2.25 million land titles have been distributed by the government.