Almost a thousand protesters gathered on Monday outside the Ministry of Land Management in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh to urge direct intervention by the Ministry in long-running land disputes, saying that handing the responsibility off to provincial authorities has stalled resolution.
Coming from the provinces of Koh Kong, Kompong Speu, Preah Vihea, and Oddar Meanchey, the more than 700 villagers held placards reading ‘We want no development that takes villagers’ land,’ ‘No land, no life,’ and other messages protesting the confiscation of their land.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service following the protest, Saing Puy—representing villagers from the Koh Sdach commune in Koh Kong’s Kiri Sakor district—said that villagers have now been locked in a dispute over land with the Chinese firm Union Development Group since 2008.
Granted a concession of more than 45,000 hectares of community land to build a major tourism site, the Chinese-owned company has now forced more than 1,000 families to leave their homes, with many more left unsure of their remaining rights to the land.
Requests to Koh Kong deputy governor Sok Sothy for help have failed to bring results, though, Saing Puy said.
“We are now requesting that officials from the Ministry go to work with local authorities at once and stop sending the issue back and forth between the province and the Ministry,” she said. “We are asking that the company be summoned to reach a settlement with the remaining landowners.”
Also speaking to RFA, Ma Ouk Chhoeun—representing villagers in Oddar Meanchey in their dispute with a sugar company owned by Ly Yong Phat, a senator from Cambodia’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party—said that nearly 400 families in the province still wait for answers to their claims.
“Waiting for local authorities to resolve this dispute has been fruitless,” he said, adding that villagers are now appealing directly to the Ministry for help. “The Ministry has been sending this issue back to the province, though. Now we seem to be in trouble.”
'Very poor already'
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for villagers in Preah Vihear province displaced by Chinese sugar companies Lan Feng and Rui Feng said that authorities in the province have been unable for 10 years to settle their dispute.
Community members made their living from the forest, he said, urging authorities to distribute land to those who lost their homes. “The people in this community were very poor already. Now that they have lost their cattle and their land, their lives have become much more difficult.”
After speaking with a Ministry official, Soeng Sokhom—representing more than 1,200 families in Kompong Speu displaced since 2010 by a sugar company owned by CPP Senator Ly Yong Phat—was told the Ministry was waiting to learn the outcome of European Union deliberations on ending trade preferences before settling their dispute, he said.
“In fact, I don’t think he wants to resolve the dispute at all. That would be too hard,” he said, adding, “We have come to the Ministry so many times now.”
Told by the Ministry to return to their provinces to speak again with provincial authorities, the protesters said they would go back but would return to protest in Phnom Penh again if no solutions can be found.
A continuing problem
Speaking to RFA, Am Sam Ath—deputy director for the Cambodian rights group Licadho—said that land disputes remain a continuing problem in Cambodia. These can be solved only if the country’s government shows a clear will and creates a mechanism to resolve the disputes, he said.
“This has to be a genuine will, though, and not just a deal on paper,” he said.
Land disputes are a bitter problem in Cambodia, where rural villagers and urban dwellers alike have been mired in conflicts that a U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia has warned could threaten the country’s stability.
The country’s land issues date from the period of the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, which forced large-scale evacuations and relocations, followed by a period of mass confusion over land rights and the formation of squatter communities when refugees returned in the 1990s after a decade of civil war.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Neang Ieng. Written in English by Richard Finney.