Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday blamed his underlings for an ongoing land dispute in Kratie province that heated up earlier this year after local officials invalidated land titles issued as part of the prime minister’s titling program.
Speaking to government officials, diplomats and students during a food security workshop at his office building in Phnom Penh, Mr. Hun Sen blasted Land Management Minister Im Chhun Lim and Kratie Governor Sar Chamrong for their failure to resolve a dispute between Snuol district villagers and a South Korean agribusiness firm.
“[I] heard that the youth have measured the land, but the land titles are not approved. Is it true? Did anyone report to me? For these problems, did all Kratie provincial authorities die already?” he said.
Mr. Hun Sen launched his land-titling scheme in June 2012, with the goal of having student volunteers demarcate 700,000 plots of land covering a total of 1.8 million hectares, for a total of 470,000 land titles, before the 2013 election.
The program was put on hold short of its goals just before the election and has yet to fully resume.
Villagers in Snuol district, who protested outside the National Assembly on Monday and then clashed with district security guards and military police as they marched to Mr. Hun Sen’s home, say youth volunteers demarcated land for them under the program in August and September 2012.
But provincial authorities reversed the students’ measurements in June this year following a complaint from the Korean-owned Horizon Agriculture Development company, which claims it was granted an economic land concession in 2008 to grow cassava and pepper on the land.
The South Korean Embassy also filed a complaint with the Ministry of Land Management on the company’s behalf in March.
When he launched the program, Mr. Hun Sen said the new land titles would be granted to families living on economic land concessions and in former timber concessions and state forests.
“I will now follow you and catch your mistakes,” Mr. Hun Sen said Monday, speaking to authorities charged with settling land disputes. “Please, this is enough. But if you say, ‘I can’t fulfill this duty because it’s a big burden,’ you can resign.”
“It’s no problem if you don’t work to find a solution because we don’t lack people who want to be governors,” he added.
Mr. Chamrong, the provincial governor, declined comment Monday on Mr. Hun Sen’s admonition.
Khan Chamnan, provincial deputy governor, defended provincial officials. “We reported to the Interior Ministry and Land Management Ministry,” Mr. Chamnan said. “So this is not the fault of the provincial level; this is the fault of the national level.”
Mr. Chhun Lim, the land management minister, could not be reached for comment.
Hundreds of affected villagers from the site in Snuol district have been living at the Samakki Raingsey pagoda in Phnom Penh for the past month after traveling to the capital to demand a solution, staging weekly marches and repeatedly petitioning government officials.
After spending an hour protesting outside the National Assembly on Monday, about 100 of the villagers began marching toward Mr. Hun Sen’s home, but were met by Daun Penh and Meanchey district security guards and military police who pushed them into Wat Botum park.
Nhem Sam On, 49, said he was knocked down while trying to help another protester who was shocked with an electric baton.
“A security guard punched me on the right cheek and I fell down and he shocked me twice with an electric baton,” he said.
Prum Chantha, 45, was carrying her 4-year-old son when they were also pushed to the ground. “Police pushed me and my son down and attempted to shock me, but stopped when they saw my son was injured on the forehead,” she said.
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said the security guards were sent to “protect the area” and noted the protesters were causing traffic jams on Sihanouk Boulevard.
“We were afraid they might be quite violent because they didn’t have legal permission” to protest, he said of the small group of unarmed farmers.
After the clash, which resulted in no major injuries, Sor Sovann, a secretary of state at the Land Management Ministry, and Vuthy Vannara, director of the cadastral dissolution committee at the ministry, visited the group of protesters at the park.
“I wish to request to all of you to return home and we will find a solution later,” Mr. Sovann said. “We promise to find a solution for all of you, but please give us more time to work on this issue.”
Mr. Sovann said he would send a “working group” to the disputed land to find a solution. Villagers were left unhappy.
“We did not agree to return home empty-handed,” said Suon Vichheka, a representative of the villagers.
Mr. Vichheka said villagers would continue sleeping at the pagoda on the city’s outskirts and staging protests until a solution is found.
“We agree to return home when Samdech Hun Sen offers the land back to us.”
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