Vague policies and weak implementation of the law are fueling a rapid rise in land disputes in Cambodia as the government grants land concessions through a system which benefits the political elite, a new two-year study showed Thursday.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), which conducted the study, called for sweeping land reform, including a moratorium on evictions until an ongoing land titling process is complete.
It also wanted the government to provide greater transparency on the implementation of a 19-month moratorium on land concessions, saying there had been many “inconsistent practices” occurring through a “crucial loophole.”
The report said that some 700,000 people have been affected by economic land concessions granted by the government to private developers since 2000, warning that land disputes between citizens and concessionaires are “rapidly intensifying.”
Current policies that “take advantage” of a widespread lack of land titles among the population, along with a “total disregard of the law and a lack of political will to implement it,” are turning such disputes into a widespread conflict on a national scale, it said.
CCHR land reform project coordinator Vann Sopheth said that although the laws on the books provide a relatively strong protective legal framework for land rights, they are not carried out properly, often leaving residents marginalized and vulnerable.
“The corruption, nepotism, lack of political will [to protect land rights] causes land disputes between villagers and investors,” he said at a conference on land disputes organized in conjunction with the report’s launch.
“The worst is the political interference in the judicial system — that means the courts can’t provide justice to victims of land disputes,” he said.
The report, based on field research in 15 provinces, as well as roundtable discussions among community representatives, NGOs, and political parties over the last two years, sees “no end in sight” to the volatile situation created by land disputes.
In order to prevent more forced evictions, the government should put in place a moratorium on evictions and maintain it until the nationwide effort currently underway to give residents titles for their land is completed, it said.
It also urged the government to plug a key loophole in the current moratorium on economic land concessions—or ELCs, licenses granted to private companies for agro-industrial plantations—that allows projects previously “under consideration” to move forward despite the suspension of new ones.
Without greater transparency about which projects were under consideration at the time of the moratorium, the rule was allowing inconsistent practices, it said.
“In order to make way for development and ELCs benefiting only the political elite of the country, the [government] operates under a veil of secrecy, violates the law, and uses violence against its population with total impunity,” it said.
Some 200 residents embroiled in land disputes in 14 different provinces attended the conference held in conjunction with the report’s launch, discussing recommendations for land reform.
Am Sokha, the land and natural resources program coordinator for another local NGO, the Community Legal Education Center, said many of the land disputes festered for years.
“Some land disputes cases have been delayed without solutions more than five years or even longer,” he told RFA.
“People are suffering because [in] some solutions, the victims received unfair compensation.”