Land Dispute Body Blames Concession Troubles on Ministries

The head of the country’s National Authority for Land Dispute Resolution on Wednesday said his authority was unable to resolve land disputes and that the responsibility for settling such disputes rested with the ministries responsible for handing out economic land concessions (ELCs) in the first place. 

Rights groups have singled out ELCs—granted to industrial scale plantations and other developers thousands of hectares at a time—as the leading cause of land disputes across the country, responsible for rampant deforestation and mass evictions.

Bin Chhin, who chairs the inter-ministerial National Authority for Land Dispute Resolution, on Wednesday bristled at being asked to solve problems he said were caused by others.

“In the past, I have never solved them [disputes],” he said at the annual meeting of the Ministry of Land Management. “Whenever a dispute arises between a company’s economic concession and villagers, I have returned them to both ministries, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Environment.

“Why have we not solved them? The National Authority for Land Dispute Resolution doesn’t grant economic land concessions, we have no right to grant them. When an ELC is granted, they don’t ask us if it should be granted,” Mr. Chhin said.

“So when a dispute happens, we dig it up. Both ministries represent the government. The national authority represents the government, too. So we need to solve it instead of the [ministries]? It is not very logical,” he continued.

Thun Sarath, a spokesman for the Agriculture Ministry, said responsibility for settling disputes was included in the contracts the firms signed with the government, but added that he did not know who those contracts gave responsibility to.

Yin Kim Sean, an Environment Ministry secretary of state, declined to comment.

Nicolas Agostini, a technical assistant on land issues for rights group Adhoc, said Mr. Chhin had a point.

“We cannot say he’s entirely wrong because for sure the Council of Ministers and Ministry of Agriculture are responsible for granting ELCs,” he said.

In a recent report on land and housing rights, Adhoc said the 66 ELCs granted last year—half of them after Prime Minister Hun Sen put a freeze on new ELCs in May—lead to 55 land disputes and 232 arrests.

But the national authority’s main shortcoming in settling those disputes, Mr. Agostini said, lay in the 2006 Royal Decree that established it. The decree vaguely gives the authority the power to step in when disputes are “beyond the competence of the National Cadastral Commission.”

“The [national authority] does not have a clear mandate,” Mr. Agostini said. “This is problematic since it acts on a case-by-case basis without, it seems, any clear guidelines. In this context, interventions can only be political and in cases for which the cadastral commission has not been able—or willing—to make a decision.”

“The [national authority] needs to be institutionalized,” he added.

“At the moment, its authority is very much linked to individuals…including the prime minister’s son. In particular, its relationships with the cadastral commission and the court system need to be clarified.”

Mr. Hun Sen’s son, Hun Manith, is deputy secretary-general of the body.

In his report on land concessions last year, the U.N.’s human rights envoy to Cambodia, Surya Subedi, agreed.

“The institution, which was not envisaged when the [2001] Land Law was drafted, does not have a clear place within the existing institutional framework for land dispute resolution,” he said. “Little information is available about the functioning of this body, and it is not known how many cases it has received and resolved.”

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