Prime Minister Hun Sen defended the government’s oft-criticized land management and development policies Thursday, saying land swaps have helped Cambodia’s cash-stricken government in the past.
As an example, he described a deal in which a company was given land in Chamkar Mon district in the early 1990s in exchange for fixing the Royal Palace, and using soil that was blocking the Bassac river to fill a lake on which Hun Sen Park was built.
The premier said there were demands in 1996 that the land he gave to the private company be given back. But if that was done, the Royal Palace would have to have been sold, he said.
“In 1996, I was accused of selling the land, and I replied then that if [someone] wanted the land back, the palace must be sold,” Hun Sen said in a speech at Hun Sen Park to mark International Literacy Day.
Money was needed to repair the Royal Palace, and so the company was asked to do so and was paid in land, Hun Sen said.
“The deal succeeded in killing two birds with one stone,” the prime minister said.
But he said he came under fire for swapping the land, and even though the company, which he didn’t identify, dropped the remaining $700,000 the government owed it, he said there was no way to get the land back.
Hun Sen said the government is always being criticized for its attempts at development by signing deals with private companies.
“I built [the country] with empty hands,” he said, adding that his critics weren’t around when they were needed most.
He characterized his critics’ view as “Whatever Cambodia does is wrong.”
The government has come under repeated fire in recent months for a wave of controversial and secret land swap deals with well-connected private companies, and which observers say are helping the rich and hurting the poor.
Hun Sen turned his attention on Thursday to an unnamed UN representative.
“One guy, a UN representative, gave a press interview when he went back,” Hun Sen said. “He came [to Cambodia] just for money. He regarded Cambodians as thieves,” he said.
“That guy said Cambodia would become this and that,” he added.
Miloon Kothari, UN special rapporteur on housing rights and adequate housing to the Commission on Human Rights, gave a scathing assessment last week of the government’s land swap policy.
Kothari, who spent two weeks investigating several land disputes around the country, questioned the plethora of secretive land deals and warned that unless land grabbing is addressed, conflict could erupt.
Kothari did not respond to an e-mailed inquiry Thursday.
Hun Sen’s speech did not strike a chord with several villagers who have been affected by the government’s land policies.
“The land management policies benefit the companies and officials in the government, not the people,” said Kuch Veng, who has protested the massive Pheapimex land concession in Pursat province.
“The concessions created a few jobs, but the villagers lost more jobs [than were created] and [their] farmland,” he said.
Chey Sophat, a resident of Kbal Spean village in Poipet where police and troops shot five people dead during a forced eviction in March, said the government’s land policy helps people only on paper.
Chea Vannath, executive director of the Center for Social Development, said the government was focused on investment and economic development, which are good and important. But she said the poor are being forgotten.
“I do not think it is helping the poor at all,” she said of the land deals.
“When you develop and do not pay attention to the living conditions of the poor, you will leave them out,” she said.