Cambodian authorities have dispatched soldiers to villages to help people register their land in a bid to ameliorate widespread land disputes in the country, but rights groups say the move does not go far enough.
The Ministry of Land Management, and the National Committee for Land Dispute Resolutions this week sent 700 soldiers to work as volunteers to register the land for the villagers and help them obtain land titles.
The project is effectively aimed at helping survey and demarcate the land for villagers who are the actual owners of the land but have no documents to back their claims.
The soldiers were the second batch in the project after authorities sent 1,100 soldiers to measure land and provide land titles to 35,000 families in 20 provinces.
The project is funded personally by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has called it a “historic” mission to “eliminate land disputes” in the country.
Hun Sen’s son Hun Manit, deputy secretary general of the National Committee for Land Dispute Resolution, addressed the soldiers on Thursday, warning them not to take bribes while registering the land.
“Your tasks are not to resolve land disputes or play the role of judge. You are assigned to measure the land according to the people’s legal ownership,” Hun Manit said.
“We should not be a headache for the villagers; we must remain innocent,” he said.
Land disputes are an everyday occurrence in Cambodia, where rights groups say some 300,000 people have been forced off their land over the past decade.
The government has granted millions of hectares of land in concessions to private developers, in some cases pitting residents against developers and sparking protests.
Hun Sen said the project will help ease land disputes, warning critics on Wednesday not to accuse the soldiers of taking sides in the disputes.
“The soldiers will measure land that has [clear] legal ownership, and land that remains under dispute is not part of their work,” he said.
Long-term solution needed
But NGO and opposition party members were wary that the project, which is funded with Hun Sen’s personal money, was part of a ploy to gain political support for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
Sia Phearum, director of the Housing Rights Task Force, an NGO coalition that works to prevent forced evictions and housing rights violations in Cambodia, said sending soldiers to register land would not be enough to solve the issue of land disputes in the long run.
“From what I have observed, the prime minister’s effort is not sustainable,” he said.
“This is just for showing that the prime minister wants to put an end to land disputes.”
He said land disputes should be resolved through the court system and that the government should focus on making existing state resources more efficient in dealing with them.
Cambodia’s land issues date from the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, which forced large-scale evacuations and relocations throughout the country, leaving who owned what land under question.
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.
Hun Sen has publicly spoken out against an increasing number of land seizures. But rights groups questioned his commitment to protecting the Cambodian people from illegal land grabs and forced evictions since he authorized land concessions to three private companies in May, just after announcing a moratorium on further grants.
Reported by Sok Serey for RFA's Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.