Violence Rife in Land Disputes, Group Says

Of the 216 active land dispute cases recorded across Cambodia by the end of 2009, the NGO For­um on Cambodia claimed yesterday that nearly half—or 45 percent—had either lead to violence or the threat of violence.

Villagers locked in those disputes complained of finding little legal recourse. According to the NGO Forum’s new figures, less than one fifth of the land dispute cases it has recorded since the start of 2008 ever entered into any form of resolution process. And among those cases that did enter a resolution process, only half—20 cases in all—have reached full resolution, NGO Forum said.

“We cannot say the reason. What we know is that the tension is higher,” said NGO Forum’s Chan Tha­ro yesterday, speaking at a news conference to release its findings on land disputes.

According to NGO Forum, a quar­ter of the ongoing land disputes across the country involve alleged land grabs by government officials, sometimes with the aid of the military.

Chan Soveth, chief monitor for the human rights program at Adhoc, said the number of new land disputes could be even higher than what NGO Forum presented yesterday. He said Adhoc recorded at least 200 new disputes in 2009 and 81 in the first five months of this year. Mr Soveth said his group may have caught more disputes because it had more offices spread across the country.

Whatever the exact figures, the NGOs called yesterday on the government to stop arresting land protesters and calling in the military to protect private firms who are in dispute with local communities. The government must give villagers a fair chance to resolve their disputes, and offer evictees fair and ne­gotiated compensation, the NGOs said.

The NGOs also hope to catch the attention of Cambodia’s foreign donors, who will meet with the government today and tomorrow for their latest aid-pledging conference.

The government and donors meet every 18 months to assess how far the government has come toward meeting the development targets they agreed to at their last conference and set new targets for the next year-and-a-half. Donors also use the conference to an­nounce their latest aid pledges. This year’s pledges are expected to top $1 billion.

Some groups say the government has missed its reform targets too often and want the donors to take note and take the government to task.

“A number of donors still keep quiet,” said NGO Forum Executive Director Chhith Sam Ath, adding that they include donors who give generously to the country’s land sector. “We are not against you, but you need to help us,” Mr Sam Ath said.

“We are appealing to the donor countries to address our issues before the government and push this government to bring all the cases to a resolution in favor of the poor, not the rich,” said Huot Mut­dy. Ms Mutdy represents families living around Phnom Penh’s Bo­eng Kak lake who are facing eviction at the hands of yet another private firm headed by a government official, CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin.

“The donors must have influence over this government, which is helping the rich get richer and lets the poor become impoverished through its land concession policy for private firms,” she said.

Fellow Boeng Kak lake resident Hang Seng said, “the government’s win-win policy for poverty reduction is to elevate the poor by kicking the poor out to take the land for the rich.”

Officials at the Council of Mini­sters and Ministry of Agri­culture either declined to comment or could not be reached yesterday.

Last October, however, the Council of Ministers responded to ongoing criticism of its eviction of urban poor communities in a statement insisting that there was no such thing as an international standard on evictions and relocations.

“In fact, there is no international standard in this world concerning the dissolution and dismantling of temporary settlements. Each country differs from the others depending on its GDP, culture, history, tradition, living condition, livelihood, land use and housing,” the statement read.


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