Mong Reththy, one of Cambodia’s most prominent tycoons, complained Tuesday that recent recipients of expansive land concessions from the government have less of a social conscience than entrepreneurs granted land in the 1990s.
Speaking on the sidelines of a conference hosted by USAID and the NGO Forum titled “Working Together to Promote Effective Reform on Land and Natural Resources Governance in Cambodia,” Mr. Reththy told reporters that disputes between concession holders and displaced villagers were nothing new.
“I have more than 20 years experience investing in economic land concessions [ELCs],” he said, going on to recount his past efforts to deal with disputes that arose.
“People complained that they did not have land for building houses, so I prepared land for them to build houses on…. Then the people didn’t have land for rice cultivation, so I cultivated it [for them], but then they could not harvest it because they were lazy.”
In contrast to his own generosity, Mr. Reththy said, recipients of concessions in recent years, when pressured to resolve disputes with displaced or threatened villagers, forget that the land comes with a responsibility to use it for the benefit of the country as a whole.
“There are many problems that we are required to sit down and talk about because some concessionaires do not understand their obligations,” he said.
“People trying to solve the problems should not think about their individual benefit,” he said. “They should think about the interests of the people and the nation…and the problems will be solved.”
Mr. Reththy, an agriculture and commodities magnate, was a monk at the Phnom Penh pagoda where Prime Minister Hun Sen served in his youth as a pagoda boy. He is a former adviser to the prime minister and remains close to him.
U.S. Embassy cables released by the anti-secrecy group Wikileaks in 2011 described Mr. Reththy as “one of the most influential businessmen in Cambodia” and “Hun Sen’s Money Man.”
Speaking at Tuesday’s conference, Suon Bunsak, executive secretary of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, said that some 4 million hectares of Cambodia’s land have been issued to private companies in the form of ELCs and mining concessions. The country’s total area is about 18 million hectares.
“We appeal to the government to solve the problems of the affected and evicted people,” he said.
Mr. Hun Sen put a moratorium on the issuance of new ELCs in 2012, but a number of concessions have nevertheless been awarded to businesspeople since then, with the government claiming they submitted applications prior to the ban.
Contacted after Tuesday’s conference, Environment Ministry spokesman Sao Sopheap denied recent media reports that the government is considering granting new ELCs.
“The government continues to implement its policy not to provide new ELCs, so any individuals who raise this issue must accept responsibility for the publication,” Mr. Sopheap said.
“The government has no policy to provide new ELCs.”