Three cardboard boxes filled with more than 42,000 signatures urging Prime Minister Hun Sen to end illegal land grabbing were handed over to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Thursday.
This is the largest land-rights petition ever submitted to the UN office, OHCHR Representative Christophe Peschoux said.
In a closed-door, three-hour meeting with 20 representatives of the petitioners, Peschoux said he heard stories of illegal land grabs and a plea for UNHCHR to facilitate a meeting with Hun Sen.
The petitioners said they appreciate Hun Sen’s warnings and condemnations of those who steal land, but they want concrete measures taken to prevent further illegal land grabs, Peschoux said by telephone.
The petitioners say they have already gone through commune, district and provincial authorities with no results, Peschoux said.
“They are putting their last hope in the prime minister,” he said. “They have come to our office to ask us to keep the petitions and help them establish contact with the prime minister in order to voice their grievances and hopefully obtain justice.”
The OHCHR agreed to hold the petitions, collected over the past seven months from every province, for safekeeping, Peschoux said. The representatives want to submit the petitions personally to Hun Sen.
Today at the offices of the Womyn’s Agenda for Change NGO, the 20 petitioners will be joined by more than 100 more representatives from around Cambodia to rally for an end to land rights abuses.
The petitioners are calling for a meeting with Hun Sen and King Norodom Sihamoni, according to an e-mailed statement released Thursday by the Cambodian Peace Network, which helped to organize the petition.
“They trust only the prime minister and his ability to address their concerns,” Peschoux said.
If the petitioners’ claims prove true, Peschoux said his office will attempt to act as an intermediary with Hun Sen. “Their grievances appear to be very legitimate,” he added.
The representatives who came to the OHCHR Thursday said they had come to Phnom Penh under slender means, some even walking, and are now sleeping in pagodas, with family members or wherever they can find shelter.
“We are from all 24 provinces and different communities,” said Heng Eing, 58, from Kok Banteay commune in Kompong Chhnang’s Rolea Ba’ier district.
Heng Eing said he has heard Hun Sen’s numerous calls for an end to land grabbing, but the grabs have continued and even increased.
“We strongly believe the government can crack down on land rights abuses,” he said Thursday outside the OHCHR office.
Long Socheit, 50, said the representatives came of their own volition, without financial backing.
“We all spent our own money to stay in Phnom Penh. We don’t have any support. There is no political party or NGO behind us,” said the fisherman from Raingtoel commune in Pursat province’s Kandieng district. “We have another 150 who are on the way.”
Ry Ya, 30, who said she represents communities in Kbal Romea commune in Stung Treng’s Sesan district, said she lost 250 square meters of her 300-square-meter farm in a recent land dispute.
“I have ten children, so how can I live with 50 square meters of farmland?” she said.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said Thursday night that Hun Sen will make the final decision on whether he meets with the petitioners.
Cheam Yeap added that the normal course for petitioners is to go through the prime minister’s cabinet or the National Authority for the Resolution of Land Disputes.
With the boom in land prices, Cheam Yeap said some officials have been tempted to abuse their powers.
“If they are caught, they will be punished,” Cheam Yeap added.
(Additional reporting by Kim Chan)