PM Says Other Parties Inciting Land Disputes

Prime Minister Hun Sen on Tues­­day opened a meeting with Cambodia’s foreign aid donors by seeking to allay fears that future oil revenues will be misused and ac­cusing unnamed politicians of inciting land grabbing.

Acknowledging “notable pro­gress” in economic and social areas, Ian Porter, the World Bank’s country director, nevertheless chided the government, saying longstanding problems risk becoming “even more serious impediments.”

At today’s anticipated close of the annual meeting, now called the Cambodia Development Cooper­ation Forum, aid donors are expected to announce pledges of assistance, which amounted to $601 million in 2006. At previous meetings with government officials, donors have expressed frank exasperation with the pace of reform. However, aid levels have rarely been affected since the donor-government meeting process began in 1996.

Prior to the closed-door consultations with Cambodian officials, which began Tuesday afternoon, donor representatives were tight-lipped.

Opposition party representatives, however, said they were bemused by the premier’s remarks.

In a broad-ranging keynote ad­dress lasting over an hour at Gov­ernment Palace, Hun Sen praised the country’s robust economy, which he said grew annually at 9.4 percent between 2000 and 2006.

Expressing concerns about the rising tide of landlessness, Hun Sen again promised the government would step up efforts to issue titles. However, he singled out unnamed politicians who he said were stirring up trouble.

“Previously there were some poli­ticians who walked about and did business, inciting some villagers to grab state land or privately-owned land illegally,” he said.

Villagers were egged on with a slogan telling them if they failed to grab the land, they could at least expect compensation for it, Hun Sen said, repeating the alleged slogan of those egging on land protestors: “Success [will] get land, failure [will] get money.”

Hun Sen also listed cases in which he said the government had prosecuted unnamed government officials for corruption and forest crimes.

“Seven government officials who have violated the forestry law were administratively punished, two officials were convicted and jailed in the case of private assets infringement,” he said, and also cited the convictions of 11 officials in the 2004 Dragon’s Tail logging scandal in Ratanakkiri province.

However, of the 11 people convicted for their roles in the multi-million dollar logging operation, most of the senior officials are still at large, including former Ratanakkiri pro­vincial governor Kham Khoeun.

In lengthy remarks on corruption, the premier recognized the long-stalled anti-corruption law as “sine qua non” for fighting graft, but said it would have to be harmonized with the draft criminal code, currently being reviewed at the Justice Ministry.

Hun Sen also took on the thorny oil revenue issue. Donor representatives have long pushed for Cam­bodia to subscribe to an international pact promising transparent handling of revenues from natural resources.

“I have noticed that our partners have been too worried about using this income even though the oil and the gas are still in the soil under the sea,” Hun Sen said, adding that donors should help Cambodia ne­gotiate a greater share of revenues from oil companies.

In remarks to reporters after Hun Sen’s speech, US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli, previously a strong critic of lagging government reforms, said the US would likely match its 2006 donation to Cam­bodia of $61 million.

“Our budget process is very confusing but in the next couple of months we should know,” he said. “It should be about the same figure as last year, about 60 million.”

While Cambodia’s economic performance had been “exceptional,” Porter said corruption was un­dermining policy reforms and aspects of governance reform “re­main stagnant.”

Forest cover has declined to below targets established in 2003 while legal loopholes have allowed land concessionaires to circumvent the bidding process, he said.

Porter added that failing to make progress in key areas allowed some problems to become entrenched.

“As some reforms take root, remaining problems…become even more serious impediments,” he said.

Both SRP lawmaker Yim Sovann and NRP Vice President Prince Sisowath Thomico said they did not think the premier was referring to them in his remarks on elements stirring unrest over land.

“I don’t understand what he means,” said Yim Sovann.

Prince Thomico also said he did not believe the remarks referred to his party.

“No, I think the NRP is still very young and I know it has never intervened in matters of land-grabbing,” he said.

Yim Sovann also cited the example of money lost to illegal logging to illustrate why he believes donors are right to worry that corruption might ensnare any potential windfall from oil resources.

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