A discussion on land rights and the definition of the term “eviction” fully eclipsed half of the allotted time for yesterday’s semiannual meeting of the Government-Development Partner Coordination Committee.
The measured but telling discussion began when German Ambassador Frank Mann read out a joint statement on land written by international donors at the closed-door meeting with members of the government.
“The greatest challenges remain in addressing land disputes in areas where state or large private entities claim land that is occupied by the poor. In many cases, this has involved expropriations, evictions and resettlements of the poor,” Mr Mann said.
He pointed to a joint statement issued by many of the development partners in July following the eviction of Group 78 from Phnom Penh that called for a halt to forced evictions.
Although the ambassador did not directly renew that call in his speech, he said that Cambodia’s land disputes are “taking attention away from the positive results that are occurring in other areas.”
Mr Mann also expressed “regret” for the abrupt early end of the World Bank’s land-titling project, which was canceled by the government on Sept 4, and called for public and civil society input on a draft law governing expropriation of land by the state.
Later in the meeting Mr Mann urged the government to prevent future forced evictions. “These individual cases, when happening, are very important to our continued support to the government.”
However, he did not mention specific cases of evictions, like this year’s demolition of the Dey Krahorm and Group 78 communities. The ambassador also mentioned that he had gone over the statement with, Mr Chhun Lim who expressed, “a certain discomfort on the side of the government on how to qualify resettlements.”
Indeed, Minister of Land Management Im Chhun Lim took particular exception to the word “eviction” in his response to the donors’ statement.
“The Prime Minister recommends that this word is very rude and we should use the word ‘squatter’,” he said.
Reading from a prepared response, the minister said, “Allow me to clarify on the use of the word ‘eviction’ of people from their houses, which is the word that does not reflect the facts of squatter settlements-illegal settlements-and the goal of the authorities who have paid great efforts to solve the issue.”
However, Mr Chhun Lim added that the government is considering the range of situations that propel people to live in temporary settlements and is drafting a policy on squatter settlement in urban areas. “By taking into consideration the needs of economic and social factors, the Royal Government recognizes the temporary occupation of settlers who illegally settle on lands.”
Mr Chhun Lim acknowledged that Cambodia has seen several recent land disputes, but, “in practice, there is no land reform which can avoid some of the …clashes. The resolution for the problems therefore sometimes can not reach full satisfaction.”
In his own response to the statement, moderator and Minister of Finance Keat Chhon said that the government is “well aware” of conflicts over land ownership, and is doing its best to avoid serious confrontations. “In some areas, a spark can also make a fire and destroy a whole forest, but in some areas a spark is just a spark,” he said.
Land tenure was also a serious concern in a statement prepared by the NGO Forum on Cambodia in preparation for the meeting. That statement pointed to forced evictions of the urban poor, pointing to the Boeng Kak lake community as an example of a community whose land rights might have been violated.
The NGO statement said that a national policy of housing should be drafted, including “a temporary moratorium on evictions and resettlement until such time as all settlements are properly surveyed to determine the legal status of households.”
Although land issues dominated discussion during yesterday’s meeting, the participants also touched on the government’s performance as measured against 20 development targets-known as Joint Monitoring Indicators-set in December 2008.
One of those was to establish a transparent and independent legal system to uphold the rights of individual Cambodians, a topic that was addressed by Australian Ambassador Margaret Adamson in another joint statement from the donors.
Ms Adamson applauded the submission of a new penal code to the National Assembly, paving the way for a long-awaited anti-corruption law, which was a major concern expressed by the donors at the last meeting in April. However, she also called on the government to speed up drafting on three other laws on the country’s court system.
Ms Adamson added that donors were worried about recent lawsuits against and imprisonment of government critics.
“Those who hold different views from government, and their legal representatives, must be confident of their rights before the courts,” she said. “Development partners, noting with concern a number of recent lawsuits, wish to highlight the need for all Cambodians, without exception, to be given full protection before the law.”
Suy Mong Leang, secretary of state for the Council of Legal and Judicial Reform, responded that. “We can use our rights until the rights of others are affected. For example, you hit the wall, hit it, hit it, until it is broken.”
He added that the government is still working on the three outstanding judicial reform laws.
A third joint statement was presented by French Ambassador Jean-Francois Desmazieres, who said the donors were concerned by the government’s projected budget deficit for 2009, which has been estimated at 6.75 of the country’s GDP.
“A large portion of the deficit overshoot reflects very large increases in spending on military and civil service wages and allowances,” Mr Desmazieres said, adding that the donors would also like to see measures to ease trade between Cambodia and neighbors Thailand and Vietnam.
Moderator Chhon responded that the government has not yet completed its budget package for the year, and is taking advice on trade from members of the private sector. However, he added, “Sometimes we cannot respond to all of their concerns.”
In a presentation on Cambodia’s progress in meeting all of the requirements in the Joint Monitoring Indicators, Chhieng Yanara, a Secretary General at the Council for the Development of Cambodia, said that there have been challenges in meeting 11 of the 20 indicators.
“The primary challenge appears to be associated with resources-financial, human and technical. Progress has been made…but much more slowly than anticipated.”
Some of the indicators that are facing large constraints included an enhanced response to HIV/AIDS and finalization the National Forest Program and Community Forestry projects.