Math Behind PM’s Canceled ELCs Claim Still a Mystery

On Friday, it will have been a month since Prime Minister Hun Sen took the stage during the opening of the Environment Ministry’s palatial new headquarters in Phnom Penh to announce that 1 million hectares had been confiscated from wayward landholders and would be doled out to poor families.

It was the culmination of a yearlong review of the country’s much- criticized economic land concessions (ELCs), blamed for forest loss and forced evictions across the country, by an ad hoc committee handpicked by the premier.

But the government still has not explained how Mr. Hun Sen came up with his million-hectare total—figures for revoked concessions released to date do not come close to that number—and land rights groups remain skeptical about where the land could come from.

Deputy Prime Minister Bin Chhin, who headed the special committee, claimed to know nothing.

“Why are you asking me? Don’t ask me. I don’t know anything,” he said Wednesday, before hanging up on a reporter.

Van Sam Oeun, Mr. Chhin’s deputy at the National Authority for Land Dispute Resolution, said he did not know either, and had yet to see a full accounting of the 1 million hectares.

“I think His Excellency Deputy Prime Minister Bin Chhin probably has it, but I have never seen the document,” he said. “What I know is that most of the ELCs were [canceled] by the Environment Ministry.”

The environment and agriculture ministries together manage all of Cambodia’s ELCs, which covered more than 2 million hectares of land until the review began.

In January 2015, the Environment Ministry announced it had reclaimed a total of 127,000 hectares from 28 ELCs that were either canceled or, in a few cases, shrunk. On Wednesday, Srun Darith, a ministry adviser and deputy cabinet chief, said the number had stayed about the same.

At the Ministry of Agriculture, spokesman Eang Sophalleth, a personal assistant to Mr. Hun Sen, also said he had not seen an accounting of the 1 million hectares and called the figure “a rough number.”

Mr. Sophalleth has for weeks been promising a press conference during which Agriculture Minister Ouk Rabun would explain the math behind the 1 million hectares, but said on Wednesday the ministry had its hands full with other, more pressing matters.

“I do not have sufficient data because everything has been very busy with the drought and other issues,” he said. “It is more important.”

In January 2015, the Agriculture Ministry said it had reappropriated only about 50,000 hectares from eight ELCs. If the Environment Ministry has not taken back any more land, as Mr. Darith said, the Agriculture Ministry must have taken back an additional 823,000 hectares over the past year if Mr. Hun Sen’s total is correct.

Rights groups remain dubious.

“I do not see data [that] highlight about which provinces, which ELCs,” said Latt Ky, who monitors land concessions for the NGO Adhoc. “It’s not specific, so it’s very hard for NGOs to assess.”

Rights group Licadho has said the government could have come up with 1 million hectares if it included old logging concessions. But those were suspended more than a decade ago, and in his speech last month Mr. Hun Sen specifically referred to canceled ELCs.

Still, Sao Sopheap, the Environment Ministry’s cabinet chief, said there was no reason to doubt the premier’s claim.

“I don’t think [there should be] any skepticism because we have all the documents,” he said before adding that he did not know where the 1 million hectares came from, either.

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