A land titling campaign in Cambodia launched and financed by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s lacks transparency and could leave thousands of people landless, a human rights group said Wednesday, urging the country’s donors to push for reform of the program.
The campaign, which employs volunteer youth to measure land for villagers, has little oversight and is largely benefiting the rich and well-connected, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement.
Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW, praised Hun Sen for his recent suspension of the campaign until after Cambodia’s July 28 national elections, but said that independent organizations must be allowed to monitor the process and intervene on behalf of families negatively affected by the program.
“It is good news that the land titling campaign has been suspended until after the elections, but this demonstrates just how political the effort has been from the outset,” Adams said.
Adams said that while some people have benefited, in other cases the campaign had “amounted to a land grab by powerful interests” with no legal regulation or recourse for families who lose their right to property.
“The campaign is being conducted in a secretive and bullying manner in which independent organizations are prevented from monitoring what is happening and local residents are threatened if they complain,” he said.
Hun Sen’s campaign began in June last year, ostensibly to benefit people living without proper documentation on state land designated for private use and granted to companies as concessions. The prime minister has said that nearly 480,000 families will receive ownership documents in relation to some 1.8 million hectares (4.5 million acres) of land.
HRW said that according to research it conducted into the efficacy of the campaign over a two-month period in Koh Kong and Kampong Speu provinces, residents in some areas reported positive experiences working with the “Samdech Techo Youth” units—who take their name from Hun Sen’s honorific title—saying they had assisted them in obtaining ownership documentation for land they had long occupied.
But in other locations, such as Kampong Speu’s Phnom Sruoch district, villagers run off land their families had farmed since the 1940s said that youth unit leaders had threatened to “throw you in irons and send you to prison” when they tried to plead their cases.
“Members of this community provided credible accounts, backed by documents and reports of local Cambodian nongovernmental organizations, that the land in question had been illegally taken from them by [Hun Sen’s ruling] Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) power-holders at the commune and village level and by an officer of the Cambodian army’s national armor unit,” HRW said.
Members of an indigenous minority community in Kampong Speu’s Thporng district said that only after they agreed to allow a youth unit measure for individual ownership titles did they realize that they had given up claims on other land they believed to be community territory.
“The students said we had to accept what they were ordered to do by the provincial cadastral officials who are acting on written orders from the ministries in Phnom Penh,” the villager told HRW. “If not, there could be trouble, and we would get nothing.”
Members of a community in Koh Kong’s Mondulseima district told HRW that a youth unit had properly measured their land, but also measured off adjacent plots which, to their knowledge, no one had previously made a claim on.
The land was being measured for title to “the authorities, the rich, or their proxies,” they said, adding that the youth had been hosted by local officials and a military unit.
HRW also documented cases during its research of people being denied assistance by youth units because they were deemed to be supporters of the political opposition and because they refused to pay bribes.
One farmer said he was threatened with detention if he tried to expose such practices, noting that “if you are a CPP person or pay money, then the local authorities make sure your land gets measured quickly and properly … Otherwise, you will have problems.”
A dissident CPP official in Koh Kong told HRW that the youth units were not only unfairly targeting opposition supporters, but also pressuring the poor to “give them money.”
“Those that do can then get money or gifts back from the students in ceremonies that get shown on TV, and now the local authorities have set this up into a system,” he said.
HRW said that an estimated 700,000 Cambodians have been affected by the granting of large-scale concessions to foreign companies and domestic firms run by high-ranking or CPP-affiliated officials, as well as other concessions, and that many communities have been forcibly or violently evicted from land they had long legally occupied.
“For a large number of Cambodians, their only source of subsistence is the land they live on and farm,” Adams said. “So how this process is carried out can literally be a matter of life or death.”
HRW called on donor countries, the World Bank, and the United Nations to insist that the land titling process be “thoroughly revised to ensure adequate public consultation, a transparent process open to independent monitoring and evaluation, adequate compensation for those who are denied title in favor of concession holders or others, and an independent complaint process.”
If those conditions could not be met, it said, the campaign should not be resumed after the elections.
“Sadly, while the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights [Surya Subedi] has sounded the alarm, donors appear to be shrinking from demanding basic transparency and accountability for a program that has such major impact,” Adams said.
“Instead of blithely accepting a fundamentally flawed process, or even appearing to endorse it, donors should demand that it be scrapped or be monitored and carried out in full accord with international standards and best practices.”