PHNOM PENH – Cambodia’s government is under fire for failing to end violent land grabs, which a local rights watchdog says have affected 2,246 families this year and around half a million people since 2000.
The seizure of land from rural smallholders and ethnic minority villagers by the state or corporations has long been one of the country's most contentious issues. Such acts have been widely condemned by the international community and led to large protests.
“These latest figures are shocking,” LICADHO Director Naly Pilorge said in a statement Tuesday. “Without land, [people] no longer have the means to provide themselves with the basic requirements for a decent life. The government must act now to end this epidemic.”
While many evictions occur in rural areas, with poor farmers relocated to make way for rubber or sugarcane plantations, one of the most high profile cases in recent years was at the 133-hectare Beong Kak lake site in central Phnom Penh, where state security forces helped violently evict thousands of families from their homes in 2011 to make way for a ruling party senator’s real estate project.
The World Bank subsequently halted funding to Cambodia over the issue. While the lake has now been entirely filled in – former residents relocated to distant areas, many of them still awaiting compensation – the real estate project is still to get off the ground.
According to the local watchdog, other violent land grabs occurred in Svay Rieng province in the country's southeast this month when about 600 families tried to prevent the clearing of public forest by security forces, and in Koh Kong province in the southwest where villagers tried to block a Chinese firm from clearing their land to make way for a hydropower dam reservoir which would see them relocated.
Prime Minister Hun Sen – one of the world's longest ruling leaders, whose government has repeatedly been accused of self-enrichment and kleptocracy – has been forced to act under tremendous international pressure to stop such land grabs.
In 2012, the premier adopted a moratorium on the granting of new concessions and established a land-titling program which has allowed many Cambodians to register their land.
However, the local watchdog said the process had lacked transparency and the moratorium had not fully taken effect.
Phay Siphan, a spokesman for the government’s Council of Ministers, told the Anadolu Agency on Tuesday that the premier’s initiatives had been highly effective, calling Licadho's comments and data "sensationalist."
“This wording [in the Licadho report] is pro-activist and for the media,” he said.
Such land grabs and a lack of judicial independence were key issues in last July’s elections, when the Cambodian People's Party of Hun Sen – who has been in power for 28 years – had its worst showing for many years, the newly formed opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party also alleging widespread fraud. The opposition has since been refusing to take their seats in Parliament and is calling for a revote.
According to its website, LICADHO is a Cambodian human rights organization at the forefront of efforts to protect civil, political, economic and social rights in the country and to promote respect for them by the government and institutions.