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After an estimated 400 protesters blocked the road outside the Ministry of Land Management in Phnom Penh, ministry officials have claimed there is no legal basis to the protesters’ grievances.
PHNOM PENH--United by land disputes, some 400 Cambodians hailing from at least three provinces travelled to Phnom Penh on Sept. 21, blocking the road outside the Ministry of Land Management in protest over the government’s handling of their situations.
Representing almost 2,000 families from Koh Kong, Svay Rieng and Tbong Khmum provinces, the protesters planned a march to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house, but were blocked by authorities.
Seeking solutions to a range of land disputes—many of which had dragged on for years—the protesters camped outside the Land Management Ministry, hoping to deliver their petitions to seek government intervention.
The petitions, which largely sought government mediation in land disputes between communities and private developers, were supposed to be delivered to the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Rural Development, but protesters were prevented from going any further than the Ministry of Land Management.
However, despite spending the entirety of Tuesday outside the Land Management Ministry, no officials would meet with them. Instead, representatives from the Ministry of Environment eventually arrived at the scene at roughly 5 p.m. where they addressed a limited number of the protesters, but it remains unclear what solutions, if any, were offered.
No Solutions in Koh Kong Province
Following their silence on Sept 21, the Ministry of Land Management issued a statement on Sept. 22, claiming that it would not resolve any land disputes in Koh Kong Province, but other cases might be heard.
“There is no legal basis for the ministry to deal with the demands from the communities [from Koh Kong Province]” the Land Management Ministry’s statement read.
It went on to claim that disputes filed against Heng Huy Agriculture Group, Union Development Group, Koh Kong Sugar Industry and Koh Kong Plantation were invalid, adding that the ministry regarded these cases as settled.
Seng Lot, spokesperson for the Land Management Ministry, stated that the demands from community representatives were wrong and lacked a clear basis, so the ministry had no solutions.
This came as little comfort to Chhim Saphan or the 743 families in Koh Kong she represents. Saphan said she has requested a meeting with Land Management Minister Chea Sophara to find some resolution to ongoing disputes between her community and both Koh Kong Plantation and Koh Kong Sugar Industry. These issues, she explained, have been unresolved for more than a decade.
According to Saphan, the 743 families have submitted petitions to the Senate, the National Assembly, the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Agriculture, and other relevant ministries several times, but so far she had received no support from the government.
“I cannot accept their silence,” she said. “We didn’t get any compensation, we have never settled with any party.”
Pen Vuthea, a monitor with human rights group LICADHO in Koh Kong Province, said that the number of people who had a conflict with those companies is as high as 1,000 families. He noted that most of those affected were never given land titles, but have lived on the land for generations.
Lack of Land Titling
But the traditional farming life of these communities has been disrupted in recent years as the government has increasingly favored land concessions to foreign companies. This, Vuthea added, has created a lot of hardships for the communities who call the land home.
“I noted that the ministry's response did not show any kind of deep study into the root causes of land conflicts in Koh Kong Province, the people will continue to be victims if the ministry does not take the time to investigate—the problem will continue,” he said.
Vuthea noted that he has observed land disputes in Koh Kong Province since 2006, starting with Koh Kong Sugar Industry, followed by Heng Huy Company in 2007 and then Union Development Group in 2010. Union Development Group were, as recently as Sept. 15, 2020, sanctioned by the US government for their role in human rights abuses in Koh Kong Province, but the government is yet to address concerns raised about the Chinese developer’s actions.
Another group of protesters from Tbong Khmum Province said that they have been engaged in a land dispute with a Chinese company Harmony Win Investment since 2014. Even after submitting multiple petitions to the a range of relevant ministries, no solution has been found.
Tha Lisa, a representative of the Tbong Khmum communities, said that 128 families had lost roughly 1,230 hectares of land to Harmony Win Investment since 2014. The ongoing dispute has so far seen a Tbong Khmum court ruling in favor of the Chinese developers earlier this year, leaving the families with no land to farm and no source of income.
Lisa explained that the Land Management Ministry did eventually accept their petition following yesterday’s protest, but added that he is not sure what to expect.
“We don’t have a land title, but we have controlled our land from our fathers and grandfathers,” he said.