Prime Minister Hun Sen on Thursday fired back at an unnamed NGO official who questioned his claim to not have known about a Kratie province land dispute until recently, calling the official “a stupid, defiant boy.”
Villagers from Kratie’s Snuol district have for weeks been protesting in Phnom Penh against a decision by local officials to reverse plans to issue them with land titles, and clashed with police when they tried to march on Mr. Hun Sen’s home on Monday.
In a speech the same day, the prime minister blamed Land Management Minister Im Chhun Lim and Kratie Governor Sar Chamrong for not having managed to settle the dispute and asked why no one had reported the case to him.
In another speech on Thursday, at a university graduation ceremony in Phnom Penh, Mr. Hun Sen rebuked the unnamed NGO official for questioning his claim that he did not know of the land dispute sooner.
“Through VOA [Voice of America] radio on August 20, there was an NGO official who made it look like I am a kid, that it should be a surprise that Mr. Hun Sen does not know something because his house has cameras. He said, ‘He did not read the news, he did not know, but now that he knows what will he do to solve it?’” Mr. Hun Sen said.
“I am sending a message to His Excellency [the NGO official], who is internationally known: You are a stupid, defiant boy,” the prime minister continued. “You can walk around the country and you can create an NGO, so why do you say silly things?”
Mr. Hun Sen said he ordered officials to settle the Kratie dispute as soon as he heard about it. He blamed a sluggish and convoluted bureaucracy for testing the patience of villagers involved in land disputes until they feel they have no option but to come to Phnom Penh to protest and petition his cabinet.
He also said that he would be meeting today with Phnom Penh’s top civil, police and military officials to figure out a better way to handle the petitions.
“When the people come to protest in Phnom Penh, how can we manage them?” he asked rhetorically. “And how can we solve the cases? And where should we send the petitions?”
Mr. Hun Sen never named the NGO or the official he was rebuking. But his account very closely resembled remarks made on VOA on Wednesday by Ny Chakrya, the head of human rights and legal aid for local rights group Adhoc.
“He is a person who does not read the newspaper. He is a person who does not watch the news, and now he said he just found out,” Mr. Chakrya was quoted as saying, referring to Mr. Hun Sen and the Kratie land dispute. “He just found out, so what action will he take?”
Contacted on Thursday, Mr. Chakrya said he had not heard about the remarks Mr. Hun Sen had made, but was not bothered by them.
“It is his right. It is freedom of expression,” he said, adding that his NGO was accustomed to being rebuked, harassed and threatened by the government.
“It is normal for Adhoc…because Adhoc has already received bad times before,” he said. “It’s not new.”
On Monday, the same day Mr. Hun Sen first spoke out about the dispute, the prime minister signed an order creating a new inter-ministerial committee to review all economic land concessions across the country to find those that were not adhering to their contracts with the government and developing their plots.
The order, confirmed by Environment Ministry cabinet chief Sao Sopheap, comes more than two years after Mr. Hun Sen signed a directive for just such a review.
Mr. Sopheap said the Inter-Ministerial Committee for Revising Measurements and Assessing Economic Land Concessions would be chaired by Bin Chhin, who already chairs the National Authority for Land Dispute Resolution.
The concessions are widely accused of illegal logging, unchecked deforestation and mass evictions around the country.
“The government decided to form the committee to solve the problem with [concessions],” Mr. Sopheap said. “We will form the committee to check and assess their development.”
However, Latt Ky, who heads Adhoc’s land and natural resources program, said the new committee would be no more effective than any of the government’s other ad hoc attempts to deal with land disputes.
(Additional reporting by Hul Reaksmey and Zsombor Peter)