Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has given approval to grant state-owned land to three private companies despite issuing a temporary ban on land concessions, drawing criticism from local NGOs concerned about increasingly frequent land disputes in the country.
Copies of three subdecrees obtained by RFA showed that Hun Sen 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.
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 a temporary suspension on economic land concessions effective May 7.
Ny Chakriya, chief investigator for local rights watchdog ADHOC, said that the transfer of the land to the companies show that Hun Sen’s orders suspending land concessions were a campaign ploy, not a commitment to ending the practice.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen’s order [to suspend land concessions] was only a political statement, and only for a political campaign,” he said, adding that land transfers should not be arbitrary and should comply with laws already on the books.
The order suspending economic land concessions came ahead of commune-level elections held June 3, which the ruling Cambodian People’s Party won by a landslide.
Ouch Leng, land reform project coordinator for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the three land transfers contradicted the temporary ban issued by Hun Sen.
“The [land transfer] subdecrees were signed in a very secret way,” he said.
Adding that the flouting of the ban could lead Cambodians to lose trust in the prime minister, he said that the National Assembly should have been part of the process of deciding on the land transfers.
“The transfer subdecrees should be first approved by the National Assembly, and the assembly should at least be allowed to discuss them,” he said.
“The National Assembly should be the one who decides whether or not the land transfers should be approved.”
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).
Council of Ministers Spokesman Ek Tha refused to comment on the land transfers, saying only that Hun Sen’s actions were in the people’s best interests.
“What Samdech Hun Sen has done is for the sake of the country and the people,” he said, using the prime minister’s honorary title.
Cabinet Chief Ho Sithy has said that the subdecrees were the continuation of economic land concessions approved before the May 7 suspension, according to the Cambodia Daily.
Reported by Sonorng Khe for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.