Prime Minister Hun Sen used his Facebook page this week to order his government to revoke the project licenses of companies failing to develop islands off the coast of Cambodia, or—worse—trying to sell them off to others.
The directive was issued on Wednesday, the same day that about 200 people rallied outside the Preah Sihanouk provincial government office hoping to meet with the visiting premier and enlist his help in settling their various land disputes.
“Island development projects that are not active shall be examined and taken back,” Mr. Hun Sen said in a Facebook post on Wednesday evening during an overnight trip to Sihanoukville.
“Especially those people who got a license and tried to sell the license to others, they will have their licenses confiscated,” he said.
Mr. Hun Sen did not elaborate on the order or say which islands or development projects might be affected.
Provincial governor Yun Min said on Thursday that he did not know how many development projects had been licensed off the coast, or what state they were in, because they were under the purview of the Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC).
“So there needs to be cooperation with the CDC to find out how many developments were granted on the islands because the development contracts are with the CDC,” he said.
CDC Secretary-General Sok Chenda Sophea and spokesman Chea Vuthy could not be reached for comment.
About 200 locals converged on Mr. Min’s office on Wednesday in the hope of meeting with the prime minister during his visit and seeking his intervention in their various land disputes with private developers.
According to the protesters, the governor invited a small group of them into the provincial government building, made them wait in a side room until Mr. Hun Sen left, then told them the prime minister had been too tired to meet with them.
Sun Sophat, a representative of the protesters, said on Thursday that the people who took part on Wednesday came from the mainland, but that communities on the islands were also locked in land disputes with private developers.
“Those companies and tycoons [developing the islands] often get benefits but violate the rights of local residents and grab their land,” he said. “If those companies have their licenses revoked, many, many people will be happy.”
On Koh Rong island, for example, popular among backpackers, about 600 fishing families are living on land slated for development by the Royal Group, which owns most of the island but has developed little of it to date.
In 2012, Mr. Hun Sen issued a similar use-it-or-lose-it warning to companies operating sprawling agribusiness plantations across the country. The government has since revoked a number of their licenses or reduced their landholdings.
Mr. Hun Sen’s attempt to spur development on Cambodia’s islands is part of a larger push to develop the coast as a tourist destination, and comes at a time when the tourism sector, one of the country’s main economic engines, is showing sluggish growth.
(Additional reporting by Ben Sokhean and Sek Odom)