Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a harsh challenge to wealthy land-grabbers Thursday: give up the land, or face the consequences.
“Those who have grabbed lands, walk [away], do not protest,’’ he said in a speech broadcast on Apsara radio. “Consider [the lost investment] like you lost in the lottery, or horse betting.’’
Hun Sen, speaking in Koh Kong province at a road construction ceremony, also ordered mass firings of corrupt officials in Koh Kong, long known as one of Cambodia’s most lawless areas.
The premier said he issued a decree Wednesday canceling claims to 22 plots of land in Sihanoukville. The plots, he said, are part of a $39 million project to expand and renovate the port and were illegally given away by land title officials in Sihanoukville.
“Now, I’m taking them back,’’ he said. “I declare now; if [the displaced owners] used armored personnel to protest, I will use [tanks]. You will see who is stronger.’’
But, the premier said, “I hope they will walk out peacefully…. The government does not want violence to occur.’’
Hun Sen said his actions in Sihanoukville are just part of a nationwide campaign.
“We strongly oppose the illegal land occupation by powerful people and those who have money,’’ he said. If the government does not take action, he said, it could face violence like that occurring in Zimbabwe, where poor squatters murdered rich farmers.
On Wednesday in Phnom Sruoch district, Kompong Speu province, 35 farmers protested their eviction from land claimed by the provincial authority.
Witnesses said Chhin Lab, 30, scuffled with police as they arrested her husband. Chhin Lab, who is eight months’ pregnant, was kicked in the side; she was taken to a hospital after her baby stopped moving.
Hun Sen’s decree expands an order he issued in October, forbidding private ownership of state property and issuing of land titles to those who illegally grab land.
Cambodia’s courts are clogged with land disputes, which have increasingly escalated into violence. Nationally, only 14 percent of land is properly registered.
Confusion over land ownership stems from the Pol Pot years, when millions were forced off their land and records were destroyed. A draft land law, now before the Council of Ministers, is expected to pass this year.
Thun Saray, director of the human rights organization Adhoc, said Hun Sen appears to be doing the right thing in the wrong way.
“We should adopt the new draft law first, and then apply it.’’
According to an Oxfam study, the Sihanoukville dispute involves land granted to 23 businessmen in 1992 under “somewhat confusing circumstances.’’
The businessmen claim they were prevented from developing the land, and in the eight years since have allowed 2,453 families to move onto it, building houses and a high school. They say they should be allowed to develop the site, but authorities have since approved plans by an international company to develop the port.
Japan, which is making a $39 million low-interest loan to upgrade port facilities, declined to comment on Hun Sen’s actions.
(Additional reporting by Kay Kimsong)