The number of people charged in land disputes across the country so far this year has already surpassed the number of charges in all of 2013 in what rights group Adhoc on Tuesday called an “alarming” increase in legal action against those wrapped up in land-related disputes.
In new figures it released Tuesday, Adhoc said it recorded 126 cases of charges being laid against people in land disputes between January 1 and August 15. That’s compared with the 109 land dispute-related charges the group recorded in all of last year.
Ny Chakrya, the group’s head of human rights and legal aid, put much of the blame for the increase on the land-titling push Prime Minister Hun Sen personally initiated in mid-2012, when he sent out thousands of volunteer students across the country to start measuring land for new private titles.
While hundreds of thousands of new titles have been doled out since, the program has also sparked a raft of conflicts and complaints among people who say they’ve been cheated, often by private firms who get the land instead.
“The volunteer students measured land for villagers and they got certificates, but provincial authorities have confiscated land from those families,” Mr. Chakrya said at a press conference. “We want to state that the land disputes do not happen because the villagers are grabbing land from companies. They just want their farms measured by the students.”
The figures were released a day after Mr. Hun Sen in a speech put the blame for land disputes arising from his program on Land Management Minister Im Chhun Lim and provincial officials.
Chan Soveth, Adhoc’s head of monitoring, said the NGO’s press conference was a response to the prime minister’s speech.
“In his speech, Prime Minister Hun Sen seemed to not take responsibility for land disputes, while most of the land disputes happen because of economic land concessions and social land concessions” —both issued by the government —“and powerful people,” he said.
In a statement accompanying its new figures, Adhoc says the actual amount of new land in dispute this year compared to the year before has shrunk, probably because of the moratorium Mr. Hun Sen placed on granting economic land concessions in 2012.
“However, little has been done to address land disputes arising out of previously granted [concessions], as 62 percent of the total size of disputed land in 2014 is on existing [concessions],” the statement says.
The more than doubling of new eviction cases from 2013 to 2014, from six to 14, it adds, “shows that land rights violations have not been adequately address by the government and continue to plague Cambodia.”
To fix the problem, the group suggests making the country’s notoriously corrupt courts more independent and strengthening the government’s cadastral commissions and the National Authority for Land Dispute Resolution.
Spokesmen for the ministries of Interior and Land Management could not be reached for comment.
Among the recent cases Adhoc highlighted Tuesday was a dispute in Kratie province in which student volunteers measured land for a group of villagers, only to have their work undone by provincial authorities who decided in favor of the Korean owners of a land concession.
Provincial land management director Kao Malilen said Tuesday that officials would visit the disputed area Tuesday to solve the problem and that company and village representatives had been invited to join them.
“We will investigate the area and we will offer the land to whichever side we find that the land belongs to,” he said.
In another case Adhoc highlighted, five villagers from Kompong Chhnang province have recently been arrested for protesting against a firm, which they accuse of stealing their farms, that belongs to the wife of Mines and Energy Minister Suy Sem.
On Monday, five lawmakers for the opposition CNRP wrote to Interior Minister Sar Kheng asking for permission to visit the men in Kompong Chhnang provincial prison.
“We are asking for permission to see the five villagers in prison on the 21st [of August] to collect detailed information on their arrests and charges,” said Men Sothavarin, one of the lawmakers who signed the request.
Prison director Peou Vuthy said he had no knowledge of the planned visit.
Mr. Sothavarin said the opposition also planned to summon Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana before the National Assembly to answer questions about the spate of land dispute arrests and charges.
(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)