Ethnic minority villagers staged a protest outside of a international donor meeting Tuesday to call attention to disputes over their communal lands and appeal to donors to pressure the government to protect indigenous peoples’ land.
Some donors expressed hope Tuesday that with the new indigenous land draft law approved by the Council of Ministers on Friday, effective protective measures would soon come into being.
“We come here because we want donors to help settle our problems,” said Romam Hill, a 46-year-old ethnic Jarai. He added that he and 38 villagers representing 52 families from Pate commune in Ratanakkiri province came to the capital after private development has damaged their ‘spirit forests,’ rotational farmlands and natural resources.
“We come to demand this be-cause [private companies] don’t give us back the land that we occupied for generations,” he said. “If they don’t…our children will face more difficulties, such as being workers forever.”
The villagers and 15 representatives from the Indigenous Rights Action Network crowded vehicles leaving the Council for the Devel-opment of Cambodia on Tuesday morning to hand out a statement to officials leaving the Government-Donor Coordination Meeting. Earl-ier in the day, protesters were refused entry to the meeting and were forced wait outside for several hours for the officials to finish their meeting.
The statement called on the government and donors to solve a land dispute and stop the loss of communal land in O’Yadaw district’s Pate commune. It also requested an end to land-grabbing, a reduction in private land concessions in indigenous minority areas, consultation of minorities in local land use, and the speeding up of the registration of indigenous land.
“We don’t know if donors and government officials can help us, but we come to show our will. It depends on them if they have pity on us,” Mr Romam Hill said.
“We file complaints with the pro-vincial courts many times, but they did not address [the complaints] for us,” he said, referring to the dismissal of a criminal lawsuit brought by the villagers in February.
The lawsuit accused local authorities and Keat Kolney—the sister of Finance Minister Keat Chhon and wife of Land Management Ministry Secretary of State Chhan Saphan—of falsifying documents and tricking villagers into selling 450 hec-tares of their land.
“Even if today we don’t have time to meet [donor officials], we can hand them [a document] about our situation, I hope they will consider our situation, said Um Mich, 46, an ethnic Kuoy from Kompong Thom province.
“In the past, we never do such action, and we protest in the prov-inces, but government leaders don’t understand our problem…. So, I now hope they understand our problem,” he said. “It is the first time we try to let the international community know indigenous minorities are seriously suffering in Cambo-dia,” he added.
The German ambassador, Frank Mann, wrote in an e-mail that Ger-many and other donors believed “reforms for increased protection
of indigenous communities land rights lack speed.”
He added that donors had in the past “expressed very strong concerns that available land for applying protective measures [for indigenous land] under design is shrinking dramatically.”
Mr Mann said he hoped that, as the indigenous land law had been approved by the Council of Minis-ters, “the government will speed up registration of communal land” and the law would show “its protective impact for some of Cam-bodia’s most vulnerable communities.”
US Embassy spokesman John Johnson wrote in an e-mail that “The US believes that indigenous communal land should be treated as a special category under the existing land law and hopes that the Royal Government incorporates the community’s concerns into the final sub-decree.”
“Secure land tenure is important for Cambodia’s economic growth and well being of its citizens,” Mr Johnson added.