The number of Cambodian families affected by land disputes and forced evictions nearly doubled between 2007 and 2008, representing an “epidemic of land-grabbing,” according to a report released Saturday by local human rights group Licadho.
The group’s records for the 13 provinces in which it has offices showed that, since 2003, approximately 260,000 Cambodians have been victims of land-related human rights abuses.
“The Cambodian authorities seem chronically unable—or unwilling—to respect their own laws, sub-decrees and regulations, and instead are facilitating an orgy of land-grabbing by powerful individuals and companies,” the report said.
Last year, 16,462 families were involved in land dispute cases monitored by Licadho, up from 8,847 in 2007. The 2008 total dwarfed the previous high, in 2006, of 12,299 families affected by disagreements over property.
The Licadho paper’s release marked the third anniversary of the eviction of more than 1,300 families from the Phnom Penh village of Sambok Chap in 2006. Those villagers account for just a fraction of the 53,738 families involved in cases monitored by the group since 2003.
The land dispute cases included in Licadho’s report ranged from simple arguments between neighbors to large development companies that were given villagers’ land in economic land concessions.
It highlighted in particular the forced evictions of communities within the Phnom Penh city limits, covering completed evictions, such as those at the Sambok Chap and Dey Krahorm communities, as well as pending evictions in Borei Keila and around Boeng Kak lake.
“The impending eviction of 4,252 families from the Boeng Kak lake area would represent the biggest forced relocation of people from Phnom Penh since the Khmer Rouge seized control of the city in 1975—hardly an admirable statistic for the current government,” the report said.
However, Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Mann Chhoeun said Sunday that the government has done nothing wrong in relocating those communities.
“Licadho said the authorities evicted people from the city to the outskirts; it is a very serious accusation, because they do not see the good that we have done to help people,” Mr Chhoeun said, arguing that the government has spent money to buy land and construct houses at relocation sites.
“If they continue to criticize us without facts, we will file a complaint one day,” he added.
Licadho also touched on alleged military involvement in land disputes, claiming that RCAF was involved in 27 land dispute cases in 2008. “On numerous occasions, armed troops have been involved in carrying out evictions ordered by government officials, frequently resulting in arrests, assaults and even deaths of civilians,” the report said.
When asked Sunday if Licadho’s information was correct, RCAF Commander in Chief Pol Saroeun said, “No, no, no, no, no,” before declining to comment further.
The report ended with several recommendations for the government for dealing with land disputes in Cambodia, including inviting international experts to advise on human rights.
The group also suggested that the government hold the yearly National Congress stipulated in the Constitution, which would allow members of the public to discuss land issues with their political representatives.
Despite being constitutionally required, the congress has never been held and, in March, Prime Minister Hun Sen called for it to be stricken from the Constitution.
Naly Pilorge, director of Licadho, said Sunday that she is still hopeful that the prime minister will reconsider that move.
“We still want to push it. I think it’s really important that this could be considered and be done,” Ms Pilorge said.
She also called for international donors to put more pressure on Cambodia to deal with land disputes humanely.
“Because the international community provides yearly funds to the Cambodian government that comes directly from taxpayers, they have a responsibility to hold the government accountable,” Ms Pilorge said.
Neither Khieu Kanharith, government spokesman and Minister of Information, nor Senior Minister Om Yentieng, president of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, could not be reached for comment Sunday.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan declined to comment on the report.
(Additional reporting by Rann Reuy)