More than a year after Prime Minister Hun Sen’s land-titling program was suspended in the lead-up to the 2013 national elections, it has still not begun again despite government claims that the program would resume following the poll.
The unfinished work left by student volunteers, who were tasked with measuring and demarcating land plots, is now exacerbating land disputes across the country, according to rights groups and villagers.
Mr. Hun Sen first announced the land-titling project in June 2012, setting a goal of sending student volunteers out across the country to provide land titles to 470,000 families on 700,000 plots of land covering a total of 1.8 million hectares of land by June 2013.
This time frame proved overly ambitious, and the camouflage-wearing volunteers were recalled a few weeks before the general elections to avoid the appearance of electioneering, with the prime minister promising they would be sent back out if the CPP claimed victory.
A statement posted on the CPP’s website in November said the volunteers had measured 660,000 plots and issued 380,000 new titles and indicated the program would recommence imminently.
But Chan Soveth, the deputy head of Adhoc’s land program, said provincial monitors for the rights group had seen no sign of the student volunteers since the election, and authorities had been unable to provide an explanation.
He accused the CPP of using the land-titling program—which Adhoc has previously slammed as legitimizing land grabs by the rich and powerful in some areas—as an electoral sweetener.
“The policy of the Cambodian government we can see, the technique of the CPP, [was to] use the volunteer youth to collect support for the 2013 election,” he said. “Mr. Hun Sen paid money by himself to convince the people to [give] electoral support in 2013. This is the policy that we see.”
Mr. Soveth said Adhoc had received complaints from villagers in several provinces, including Kratie, Battambang, Siem Reap and Kampot, that they had not received land titles while others in their district had.
Mathieu Pellerin, monitoring consultant for rights group Licadho, said the organization was also unaware of student volunteers returning to their task.
“There has been sporadic distribution of land titles, but there hasn’t been a resumption of that on a large scale,” he said.
Mr. Pellerin said land conflicts had continued in a number of areas visited by the student volunteers, while new disputes had also emerged.
“[Because]…this extra-administrative land-titling distribution was arbitrary in nature, it didn’t deal with land conflicts properly…it seems to have avoided many, many, many of the well-known land conflicts,” he said.
Licadho has previously criticized the program for a lack of transparency and for bypassing government bodies set up to perform land-titling.
Officials in Kampot province say a dispute in Decho Aphivat commune has erupted between villagers and a private firm, First Biotech Agricultural, as a result of the abandonment of the land-titling project before the election.
About 100 villagers protested earlier this week over what they say is the company’s encroachment on their land—with those whose plots had not yet been awarded titles by the volunteers more vulnerable to land-grabbing.
Meas Sophen, Chrey Bak village chief, appealed to the government to finish the job.
“The villagers have a land dispute with the private company because hundreds of hectares of villagers’ farmland was not measured before [the volunteers] left,” she said.
Ich Khoy, Decho Pongrork village chief, said student volunteers had spent two weeks in her village, demarcating about 40 percent of the land, before leaving.
“They told us that they would come back again 10 days after the election, but now more than a year has passed, so where are they now?” she said.
Many of the students involved in the program were in their last years of university and have now found paid jobs.
A 25-year-old former student volunteer, who declined to give his name for fear of risking his role at an engineering firm in Phnom Penh, said he had measured land in Kampot province purely to gain experience.
“After the election I stopped coming to measure the land because I have a job now. I’m [under] no obligation to do it again,” he said.
Kampot provincial governor Khoy Khun Hour said local officials had stepped up to fill the gap left by the students.
“After the national election [Mr. Hun Sen]’s volunteer students did not come back because they did not have the order to do so. However, we have nearly finished our work in the whole province,” he said.
Ministry of Land Management spokesman Meng Bunarith declined to comment.
Huy Phap, a former land policy council member at the Ministry of Land Management who now acts as a part-time consultant to the ministry, insisted the land-titling program was still ongoing.
“It’s not finished yet, we just have less activity,” he said. “The student volunteers are still working around the provinces, but the number has decreased by about 20 percent because we can’t force them to work.”
Mr. Phap acknowledged problems with the rollout of the program.
“We understand some villagers got land titles and some others did not, but we will resume the work again,” he said.