The number of families newly affected by land conflicts last year tripled to more than 10,000 in the 13 provinces where human rights group Licadho has monitors, the NGO said Thursday, following what it called a politically engineered lull in disputes the previous year.
According to a statement released by Licadho, its monitors in central and western Cambodia found 10,625 families newly embroiled in land disputes affecting nearly 50,000 people in total, a threefold surge over the 3,475 new families the organization identified in 2013.
The cases included the fatal shooting of an 18-year-old in Preah Vihear province in July by a soldier who accused the young man of ignoring repeated warnings to stop encroaching on his land. The victim’s father said it was the soldier who was trying to steal the land from 10 families, including his, on behalf of an army major. The soldier confessed to the killing and was charged with murder.
“The root causes of land conflicts have been well documented: a corrupt and politically-obedient judicial system, the misuse of armed forces, including soldiers, as well as collusion between well-connected companies and authorities,” Am Sam Ath, Licadho’s technical coordinator, said in the statement. “This toxic cocktail has been fueling conflicts throughout the country for too long.”
Mao Sving, a rice farmer in Banteay Meanchey province, said he used to have two hectares but, like the other 400 families in his village, had lost most of it to a company called Ly Som Ang.
Mr. Sving said the families initially agreed to let local authorities convert part of the area, which the families settled in 1993, into a community forest in 2007 but felt duped when Ly Som Ang moved in a year later and started clearing the land. The company withdrew when the families first protested, he said, but has since returned, prompting them to turn to Licadho for the first time last year.
“Since then, we have often faced off with the company’s workers. Whenever our villagers come out in a big group to stop them from clearing, the workers withdraw, but they keep coming back again and again,” he said.
Licadho says some of the families it added to the 2014 tally, such as Mr. Sving’s, were embroiled in land conflicts that have their roots in earlier years but only felt compelled to contact the NGO as their disputes escalated. It says none of the families counted in 2014 were counted before.
Last year also saw nearly twice as many new families in land disputes compared to 2012, according to Licadho, when it identified 5,672 families in its 13 provinces.
The rights group says the 2013 dip, in a year when the ruling CPP ran a tight race against the opposition in a national election it won only narrowly—some believe it actually lost—was proof that the government could help farmers facing off against private companies when it wants to.
While the drop gave cause for hope at first, Licadho director Naly Pilorge said, “It is now abundantly clear that it was merely an electoral tactic. The reduction does demonstrate, however, that when it’s in its interests, the government does have the power to improve things.”
The 2014 surge in affected families came despite a government push since 2012 to hand out private land titles across the country and the cancellation last year of dozens of large-scale concessions, blamed for most of the disputes and forced evictions. Rights groups say both efforts have had little effect on the number of land conflicts because they have for the most part deliberately avoided contested areas.
Spokesmen for the Ministry of Land Management could not be reached Thursday.
In April, however, following the release of earlier land dispute figures from Licadho, Land Management Ministry Secretary of State Sar Sovann accused the organization of counting the same land disputes multiple times in order to inflate its numbers. Licadho denies the claim.