Prime Minister Hun Sen is scheduled to meet behind closed doors with international donor representatives on Thursday to discuss the government’s natural resource management practices, specifically its policies on economic land concessions.
The meeting, which was announced during a conference between country donors and the government on June 14, will take place as the conflict between the Wuzhishan LS Group and the Phnong hilltribe over the Chinese company’s giant land concession in Mondolkiri province continues to escalate.
Observers are concerned that the situation in Mondolkiri could turn violent, which they say reinforces their views that reforming the government’s land practices is the most important and volatile issue facing the country today.
“When it comes to land issues, the potential for conflict is very real,” one international development official said.
During the CG meeting in December, the government made a number of agreements with donors to ensure reform goals would be met this year as a condition to the government receiving $504 million in loans and grants.
These agreements covered a wide range of topics but the most crucial, as donors and NGOs put it, was natural resource management.
In the following months, the government took a series of actions on land concessions which, some donors say, have at times surprised, shocked and frustrated them.
On March 14, Hun Sen announced that the government was once again granting economic land concessions, even though it had agreed with donors to maintain its moratorium on the granting of those concessions.
Then in May, it was revealed that the government had issued a special logging concession in Ratanakkiri province to acquire 10,000 cubic meters of wood for the new National Assembly building, breaking its agreement on the logging moratorium
Also in recent months, donors and civil society representatives have complained about large holes in the draft subdecrees on concessions that have been put forward for comments by the government.
On June 14, diplomats sat down with government representatives at the Council for the Development of Cambodia building, ready to review the government’s progress towards reform in a number of areas and confront the government over land issues.
The meeting, chaired by Finance Minister Keat Chhon, was to lead to the mid-year CG meeting with Hun Sen that had been scheduled for June 30.
But in his opening statement, Keat Chhon announced the June 30 meeting was canceled because the government felt it was unnecessary. And when donors aired criticism of the government’s land policies, Keat Chhon told them the land issues had been dealt with.
“[Keat Chhon] mentioned this order several times, whenever there was criticism of land issues,” said one diplomat who attended the meeting. “He made it sound like it was the answer to all our concerns.”
Despite his reassurances, donors insisted on discussing the issue, at which point the Finance Minister bounced responsibility up to Hun Sen—the only person who could make decisions on the matter, he said.
“Keat Chhon said it was too political and sensitive to handle in that technical setting,” the diplomat said.
This led to scheduling the meeting due to take place on Thursday.
“There are some very big issues” to be discussed, a senior diplomat said. “How [government officials] explain it, is what matters.”
But diplomats stayed away from the word “penalty” when asked which actions they were ready to take to show they were serious about benchmarks.
In the last month, members of civil society have pointed at the Wuzhishan concession as an example of all that is wrong with Cambodia’s land management practices.
“Disclosure of concession details, impact assessments, consultation with local communities and termination of concessions not meeting legal agreements were all agreed upon by the government at the last CG meeting,” said Russell Peterson of NGO Forum.
“Real social problems are caused by the lack of action on these indicators, as we can see in the Wuzhishan case,” he added.
An international development official agreed that land issues can affect everything, from people’s livelihoods and health, to the environment and individual human rights, he said. “That’s the root… People are affected by it,” the official said.
In the meantime, several Mondolkiri provincial departments have complained they have not had any contact with Wuzhishan, which appears to be dealing solely with top government officials.
“The company has not made any contact with the Ministry of Agriculture yet,” said Hor Bun Heang, director of the province’s agriculture department.