Prime Minister Hun Sen on the evening of Feb 17 blasted government officials for land grabbing or willfully ignoring those who do, and again promised to fight land theft.
In a rare admission of defeat, Hun Sen also admitted that his previous warnings against land grabbing had not been heeded.
“Before, about 30,000 to 40,000 hectares of land and forest had been grabbed or burned down, but after the government appealed for a halt to this, it increased to 200,000 hectares,” Hun Sen said at the closing of an environmental conference in Phnom Penh.
“If we appeal time and time again and they continue these crimes …would they possibly start a coup? This must be a possibility,” he added.
Hun Sen has warned on several occasions of the potential threat land grabbing posed to the stability of the country, but previously his warnings were in the context of landless villagers staging a “farmer revolution.”
Hun Sen said the government could not afford to wait for the passage of an anti-corruption law to tackle the land-grabbing crisis, adding that penalties for such offenses were already outlined in the Land Law, Forestry Law and Fisheries Law.
The prime minister added that much of the fault rested with his ministries and local officials who clamored for more authority but then never had the nerve to exercise it.
Reverting to the strongman terminology he is famed for, Hun Sen let it be known that he had the power to deal with offenders, and that no officials, no matter how powerful, should consider themselves immune.
“Nothing is more difficult than calling Pol Pot out of the jungle, and nobody has a metal-proof head,” he said before calling on officials to report directly to him about illegal land grabbing and clearing.
“We always see and hear about land encroachment…deforestation, flooded forest clearing, mangrove clearing, inappropriate house construction and sand production that damage the environment,” Hun Sen said.
“It seems very difficult to believe that the local authorities do not know the things that have happened in their own territories.”
Yin Kim Sean, secretary of state at the Ministry of Environment, said that his ministry was working “step by step” to compile a list of land grabbing offenders by order of Hun Sen.
He added, however, that he was unsure when that information would be passed on to the prime minister.
Chea Vannath, former president of the Center for Social Development, said it would likely take strong measures from Hun Sen to see his warnings taken seriously.
“If any provincial governor is not able to stop illegal land clearing or deforestation he should be fired,” she said. “If Samdech Hun Sen does that, other governors may pay attention to follow [his] order.”