Policing, Free Speech Raised at Donor Meeting

Amid a recent spike in police violence against land protesters, Cambodia’s foreign donors yesterday together called on the government for “responsible policing” and expressed “concern” over the trend.

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Anti-eviction protesters dressed as doves gather outside the Council for the Development of Cambodia in Phnom Penh on Sept. 26, during a meeting between the country’s international aid donors and the government. (Siv Channa)

The relative candor from aid donors came toward the end of the high-level but long-delayed meeting with top government officials in Phnom Penh yesterday, where the government officially approved a revised list of reform targets, or Joint Monitoring Indicators (JMIs), pushed by the donors.

Speaking for all donors at the meeting, the Australian Embassy’s first secretary, David Gordge, raised concerns with the government’s policing. The donors, he said, “encourage the Royal Government to strengthen efforts to maintain democratic states, including by ensuring responsible policing of protests and that the law is used to ensure the freedom of expression.”

The comments come amid what human rights groups say has been a rise in land disputes between villagers and the powerful companies granted economic land concessions by the government.

The unscripted donor comments were tacked on at the very end of yesterday’s Government-Development Partner Coordinating Committee (GDCC) meeting, which was a highly scripted affair at which the donors provided the government with advance copies of their mostly encouraging statements regarding the country’s reform agenda. (China was not present at the forum as it does not attend such donor events.)

Apparently caught off guard by the donors’ reference to policing and freedom of expression, Finance Minister Keat Chhon, who chaired the GDCC, brushed the comments aside.

“It is not something new,” Mr. Chhon said in response to the donors. “We will take note,” he added.

Earlier in the morning, Japanese Ambassador Masasumi Kuroki also veered slightly off script at the end of a prepared statement urging the government to give NGOs more say in developing the reform targets and more authority to the 19 sector-specific working groups at which those targets are hashed out.

“With all respect to the efforts of the Royal Government of Cambodia to make progress in most of the sectors mentioned in the JMIs,” Mr. Kuroki said, “I think that some of the sectors have not made significant progress that have been postponed beyond the target year.”

Mr. Kuroki did not elaborate on the sectors in question, and the Japanese Embassy did not reply to a request for comment.

Traditionally one of Cambodia’s most generous foreign donors, Japan has normally been one of its quietest. But, Japan has appeared to grow more assertive in recent times.

Japanese officials atypically admonished Cambodia recently over its chairmanship of Asean and the ambassador recently met with human rights groups who have been highly critical of the government’s handling of land disputes.

At the heart of those disputes is the practice of granting economic land concessions (ELCs) to agri-business firms who are often accused of encroaching on local farms and protected forests.

Yesterday, the donors also took aim at the ELCs.

“While the Royal Government rightfully wishes to promote direct investment, raise productivity, create jobs and income opportunities in the agricultural sector, critics point to an increase in land conflicts in areas where state or large private entities claim land that is occupied often by the poor and vulnerable,” said German Ambassador Wolfgang Moser, speaking for all donors at the meeting.

“In many cases, this indeed has resulted in involuntary resettlement. This is of concern to development partners whose overarching goal is to support the Royal Government’s policies to alleviate poverty,” he said.

“Progressively realizing the human right for adequate food and shelter requires more efforts to implement the existing legal framework.”

Mr. Moser also praised the government for the more than 2 million private land titles it has issued to date, and Prime Minister Hun Sen in particular for ordering in May a temporary freeze on all new ELCs and a legal review of all existing ones. Mr. Moser asked for a report on how that review of ELCs was progressing.

In his own remarks to donors, Im Chhun Lim, the minister of land management, urban planning and construction, defended the ELCs.

“The real aim of granting ELCs is to serve the real interest of the poor in the investment area,” he said.

Mr. Chhun Lim also updated donors on the progress of a nationwide land titling push, which Mr. Hun Sen also announced in May. He said the government was expanding the scope of the project from surveying 1.2 million hectares to 1.8 million hectares and from titling 350,000 households to 470,000 households. He said more than 800 families had received titles already.

The government has promoted the land-titling project as a way of avoiding future land disputes by clearly demarcating who owns what, but the project is strictly avoiding areas currently in dispute.

Ahead of yesterday’s meeting, several international human rights groups urged Cambodia’s donors to make their aid more conditional on the government’s progress toward the reform targets and its respect of human rights.

Though none of the donors present yesterday made official aid pledges, many are already locked in to multi-year plans.

At their last aid-pledging event with the government, in 2010, donors announced $1.1 billion in assistance to Cambodia, roughly half the government’s budget for the year.

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