Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen Tuesday denied allegations that he violated a temporary ban by granting land to three investors in May, following an earlier order suspending concessions in a bid to address land disputes across the country.
Speaking at a public forum, Hun Sen said that critics who accused him of flouting his own concession ban last month “misunderstood” three new subdecrees, obtained by RFA, which approved a total of over 21,000 hectares (80 square miles) of land to be handed over to three companies to invest in rubber plantations.
“People said that Hun Sen granted land concessions after his suspension,” the prime minister said.
“I would like to clarify. Please read the entire [May 7 order of suspension]. I never issued any subdecrees to grant further land concessions,” he said.
Hun Sen explained that the recent subdecrees were issued only for companies that the government had granted land concession contracts to prior to the May suspension.
The three subdecrees, dated May 18, allow 7, 710 hectares (30 square miles) of land in Siem Reap province to be transferred to Le Ye Rubber; 5,914 hectares (22 square miles) in Kompong Thom to H.M.H.; and 8,000 hectares (31 square miles) in Ratanakiri to S. K. Plantation.
The documents, which allowed the land to be converted from state public land to state private land, came less than three weeks after Hun Sen ordered the temporary suspension on economic land concessions.
Economic land concessions granted to private developers have been at the root of several high-profile disputes in recent years, including in the Boeung Kak Lake and Borei Kela areas of Phnom Penh, where residents say they were forced from their homes.
The Ministry of Agriculture Forestry, and Fisheries says that 800,000 hectares (3,100 square miles) of land has been granted to 68 companies—including those from China, Vietnam, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, India, and Singapore—to invest in agricultural projects such as rubber, cassava, or sugar plantations.
But local rights watchdog Licadho put the total number of agricultural land concessions higher, at 2 million hectares (7,800 square miles).
According to Licadho, the government has also given away more than 1.9 million hectares (7,300 square miles) in mining concessions, in some cases pitting residents against developers and sparking mass protests.
About 400,000 people have been affected by the nearly 4 million hectares (15,400 square miles) of concessions, Licadho says.
Order targeted companies
Earlier this month, Hun Sen reiterated his May 7 concession ban, which also ordered officials to return land to villagers from companies who breached their concession contracts.
He also ordered the Ministry of Agriculture to penalize companies that had encroached on villagers’ land.
But land rights groups have questioned Hun Sen’s commitment to protecting the Cambodian people from illegal land grabs and forced evictions.
Cambodia’s land issue dates from the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, which forced large-scale evacuations and relocations throughout the country.
This was followed by mass confusion over land rights and the formation of squatter communities when the refugees returned in the 1990s after a decade of civil war.
Housing Cambodia’s large, young, and overwhelmingly poor population has posed a major problem ever since.
An estimated 30,000 people a year in Cambodia are driven from farmland or urban areas to make way for real estate developments or mining and agricultural projects.
Reported by Sok Serey and Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.