Prime Minister Hun Sen has defended the government’s actions in the land dispute between CPP Senator Ly Yong Phat and several hundred Kompong Speu province families in a letter to the SRP, saying authorities had followed all required procedures for granting land to the senator.
In the letter received by the opposition party last week, the prime minister also blamed unnamed politicians and NGO workers for violence that occurred during protests.
Hundreds of families in Thpong district’s Omlaing commune are locked in opposition with a 20,000-hectare sugar plantation which they say covers 2,000 hectares of their land.
The operation has in the past been guarded by RCAF troops sponsored by Mr Yong Phat.
Mr Hun Sen wrote that the granting of land to Mr Yong Phat’s sugar company in Thpong district was “implemented through proper legal procedure” by the Agriculture Ministry and local authorities.
The letter replied to written queries about the land dispute from SRP lawmakers on March 31.
During a protest in late March tensions boiled over and villagers burned two makeshift shelters belonging to the company. Authorities reacted by arresting two village representatives, who were later released on bail.
In his reply, dated July 29, the prime minister blamed these events on unnamed lawmakers from outside the village.
“A group of opportunistic politicians, some civil society groups and anarchistic land brokers…and land grabbers have made an unfortunate propaganda [that] the state offered the land to the company for investment, including the villagers’ rice fields,” he wrote.
“After spreading this information the villagers consequently went to demonstrate…. On March 18 2010 those villagers caused violence by burning down the company headquarters and damage some property, including a guarding station used by deployed police,” the prime minister wrote.
Mr Hun Sen said a provincial working group tasked with resolving the dispute had concluded that one concession in Omlaing commune should now be downsized from 9,393 hectares to 8,343 hectare of land in order to ensure there was no overlap with the villagers’ land.
Phnom Penh Sugar Company representative Chheng Kim Sun said she had not yet seen the letter but the company would follow the prime minister’s instructions to cut down the sugar growing concessions. “We implement something in accordance with the principles of the government,” she said.
SRP members and rights workers yesterday disagreed with Mr Hun Sen’s assessment, saying officials had done nothing to hold the company accountable for the clearing of villagers’ land and that the land concessions had been granted outside legal procedure.
SRP lawmaker Yim Sovann said the prime minister’s account of the situation was “completely groundless.”
“He wrote they followed the law, the procedures and consulted with local authorities. He does not mention consulting the people. That is the weak point,” he said. “The government should consult the people first.”
Mr Sovann said he thought Mr Hun Sen was referring to the opposition when he stated “opportunistic politicians” had been behind the villager protests.
“We did not instigate people, we help the people,” he said.
Ouch Leng, land program officer at the human rights group Adhoc, said Mr Hun Sen’s assessment of the situation in Omlaing commune was biased in favor of the company’s interests at the expense of villagers’ land rights.
“The prime minister says the company conducted the procedures smoothly,” he said. “Many NGOs that follow this dispute found that Ly Yong Phat’s companies never complete the economic land concession procedures.”
“The government favors the private company and rejects the rights of the vulnerable people,” he said, adding he had little hope officials would reduce the concession area as the prime minister suggested.
Villager representative San Thou said he knew only parts of the content of the letter, but he welcomed the prime minister’s attention for the dispute.
“Samdech [Hun Sen]’s letter is very good, because he thinks about his people,” he said, adding however, the SRP was not behind the villagers’ protests. “This political party did not incite the villagers to demonstrate.”