Cambodians are increasingly resorting to public protests to demand resolutions to the country’s ubiquitous land disputes, according to the human rights group Adhoc, which says that number of protests over land has more than doubled so far this year compared to all those recorded in 2009.
In a statement released Friday, Adhoc said the sharp increase in land protests was a sign that people had lost hope in the government’s ability and will to resolve land disputes and had turned to organizing protests to resolve them.
Government officials yesterday rebutted such claims and said the increased protests were a demonstration of the public’s exercise of freedom of expression.
Adhoc said by late September it had recorded 145 protests involving around 10,300 people who protested over 57 land disputes, adding that “chronic” protests had occurred in Boeng Kak lake in Phnom Penh and in 18 provinces.
By comparison, there had been a total of 71 land protests last year and 67 protests in 2008, Adhoc said. “Among the protests, we observed that 17 cases were dispersed violently by armed forces,” the statement said.
According to Adhoc, protests mostly took place at courthouses and local government offices, at the Prime Minister’s residence and at the National Assembly.
The group claimed that this year, for the first time, protesters had blocked national roads, preventing traffic from passing on six occasions in Pursat, Koh Kong and Kompong Speu provinces.
“Villagers think that road blocking is one of the crucial options, which gives an immediate result that requires the concerned authorities or private companies to…solve the issues,” Adhoc said.
Ouch Leng, Adhoc land program officer, said yesterday that the failures of the legal land dispute mechanisms–the provincial and national cadastral committees, the court system and the National Authority for Land Dispute Resolution–caused land disputes to go unresolved for many years.
“This increase in protests occurred because of the inactivity of the government,” he said. “So now in 2010 the people decide to solve the problems by themselves.”
Mr Leng said the increase in land dispute protests did not seem to be fueled by an increase in land disputes, but added that the protests were in part a reaction to a large number of economic land concessions granted to private companies this year and to the arrests of village representatives.
In mid-August, Adhoc reported that Cambodian courts had sent 48 people to prison this year for their involvement in land disputes, while a further 24 were awaiting trial in detention.
Mathieu Pellerin, a consultant with the human rights group Licadho, said his organization had also recorded more land dispute protests this year.
“Licadho also observed the number of protests and marches to Phnom Penh…has greatly increased in the first half of 2010,” he said. “It’s probably why authorities are increasingly violent in dispersing protests.”
Mr Pellerin said people were often right to demand solutions from the higher authorities through protests.
“Very often authorities closest to the villagers are not given power to do the right thing, and these higher authorities are often the ones giving green light to these [land development] projects,” he said.
Non Theanny, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Land Management, said she was unaware of an increase in land dispute protests, adding that resolving land disputes was challenging for the government.
“There are many factors related to [land disputes] because [much of] the land has not yet been registered and lacks clear boundaries,” she said.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said Cambodia had “a number of mechanisms” for solving land disputes, the most important being the court system.
Mr Siphan said villagers could protest freely over land disputes if they wanted to.
“The protest is a social movement: They express their freedom of expression,” he said.