Friday, 20 March 2009

Cambodia: Eliminating opportunists in land dispute (press release) [New Zealand]

Friday, 20 March 2009

Press Release: Asian Human Rights Commission

Cambodia: Eliminating opportunists in land disputes requires effective local administration and proper public consultations

The Cambodian government’s drive for the all out development and beautification of urban centres has created one of the most serious problems for its people. This particular problem is widely known as land grabbing. It is characterized by the grabbing of the land belonging to the poor and weak with unjust or no compensation, by the rich and powerful. Over recent years, and very likely in the years to come, land grabbing has and will affect hundreds of thousands of such people.

In many cases, victims of land grabbing have protested their evictions when they felt the compensation was unjust. This resistance has invariably ended up with the authorities using brute force to evict residents from their homes and lands. The latest of such brutal forced evictions took place in January 2009 when, in the early hours of the morning, hundreds of armed police and company workers, backed up by demolition machines, went to demolish hundreds of homes in the Dey Kraham community in the centre of Phnom Penh and forcibly trucked the residents away to a resettlement area.

In many land grabbing cases, the authorities have claimed that opportunist people had moved on to the land and pressed for compensation when such land was state property now used for other purposes or after such land had been made into private property or granted as concession to the rich and powerful for economic purposes. The claim of the presence of such opportunists has weakened the resistance and demand for just compensation of bona fide residents on the concerned land. As mentioned above, when they are poor and weak, such resistance and demands have eventually lead to their forced eviction.

Very recently over 50 people from the remote northern province of Oddar Meanchey went to stage a protest in front the Prime Minister’s residence on the outskirts of Phnom Penh to request him to get fair compensation for them from a sugar plantation company which had allegedly grabbed their land. But this company claimed that it had received this land as a concession from the government for a sugar plantation. The provincial governor, Pich Sokhin, said more than 200 families affected had already agreed to accept compensation ranging from US$300 to 1000 per family. However, Pich said, when the company started the plantation of sugar cane some local villagers and other people from other provinces moved on to the land and built small cottages with the intention of causing trouble and claiming compensation from the company.

Earlier on, in November 2008, armed police and soldiers used force and fire to evict hundreds of families in an area which the authorities said was located in a state-owned land, which was part of the Bokor National Park in the province of Kampot. The park’s director, Chey Uterith, said that those families had built small homes in that part of the park in the previous year. Chey accused them of grabbing the land with the intention of selling it to others. They then move on to a new site and repeat the process.

The presence and demand for compensation of such opportunists who have moved on to the land in dispute, national parks or the like could have been avoided if the concerned public authorities, especially the local authorities, were effective in the administration of the territory under their jurisdiction. As monitors have observed, in all elections, those local authorities are very effective in identifying people who are supporters or not supporters of the ruling party, and use their influence on them and pressurize others to vote for this party.

If they are that effective, they should also be able to identify people who are residents and know the exact location of their homes under their jurisdiction. Furthermore, they should be able to recognize all new people who have moved on to the disputed land and take necessary measures to prevent them from doing so at the outset. They could for instance get court orders to get them out of the land and/or prevent their construction work. At the very least they could distinguish the newly built homes from the older ones of the bona fide residents and legitimate claimants for compensation. The governor of Oddar Meanchey province and the director of the Bokor National Park could have and should have stopped those opportunists from moving on to that land for sugar plantation and that park, respectively, right from the start when they knew of their first move. These two officials have yet to explain their inaction at the time.

Furthermore, the problem with these opportunists could have been avoided. The distinction between them and those bona fide residents and legitimate claimants could be made a straight forward and perhaps disputes could have been avoided altogether if all the concerned authorities were to effectively enforce and comply with the Land Law of 2001 and all the regulations thereof.

The Land Law determines the ownership and acquisition of land. A government Sub-Decree on Economic Land Concession issued thereof, dated 27 December 2005, sets out a detailed procedure to be followed by all concerned authorities before deciding to grant any concession of land for economic purposes. Article 4 of this sub-decree for instance lays down a set of criteria that must be met first. For instance, the use of the land whose concession is under consideration must be consistent with the land use plan adopted by the Provincial-Municipal State Land Management Committee (Criterion 2), and there must be public consultations with territorial authorities and residents of the locality (Criterion 5). Not all residents have to be included in these public consultations, however, when Article 35 of the same sub-decree stipulates that the concession granting authority has to organize such consultations with territorial authorities and “representatives of local residents.”

Large numbers of residents may justify this limitation of consultations to representatives of local residents. But for these consultations to yield binding outcomes and to avoid disagreements and protests from any other residents, the concession granting authority must ensure that these people are genuine representatives of all residents and are not handpicked or selected by it or any other authority or the applicant for the concession, and that these representatives are subject to no influence or pressure whatsoever. Such consultations would help ascertain further the bona fide residents and henceforth thwart any attempt by opportunists to move on to the concerned land to demand compensation.

Effective public administration and compliance with the Land Law and the regulations thereof, especially the Sub-Decree on Economic Land Concession, could not only thwart attempts by opportunist to make money out of moving on to the lands of others, but could also go some way to avoid land disputes and address the land grabbing problem.

About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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