PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Kampot provincial authorities say an ongoing dispute over a social land concession (SLC) for retired and disabled soldiers in their province is based on misinformation and meddling by the leader of a small political party who has himself bought land in the area.
Provincial leaders are pointing the finger at the League for Democracy Party (LDP), a small opposition party they say has been inciting local villagers to protest against provincial officials trying to demarcate the SLC boundaries in Techo Aphiwat commune.
LDP leader Kem Veasna has been urging more people to protest against the authorities, they say, adding that Mr. Veasna has also illegally bought several hundred hectares of land from people they say are squatting on land put aside for the SLC.
“Some anarchists have removed demarcation posts and sometimes, they have surrounded and blocked officials while they were attempting to demarcate the SLC,” a report submitted by provincial governor Khouy Khun Hour on Sunday said.
The report about the land dispute was submitted to Interior Minister Sar Kheng, following ongoing demonstrations in Phnom Penh against the SLC in Chhuk district. The SLC was granted to 240 retired soldiers and disabled army personnel, and their families.
Mr. Veasna, however, is dismissing the accusations. He told Khmer Times that he was not involved in any inciting or protesting about land issues in the area – and that he did not own any. “I have no land there. I did not incite the protests at all,” he said, adding: “What does the word ‘incitement’ mean?”
“The provincial committee took the land of local villagers for an SLC for families of retired and disabled soldiers,” Mr. Veasna said. “I am not afraid anymore over issues with authorities, even if I go to jail over this issue. I just care about finding justice for people, that’s what is meaningful,” he added. Mr. Veasna is a former lawmaker with the Sam Rainsy Party. The dispute, like most of the land disputes that continue to plague Cambodia, is complex.
ELCs Cut Back
In late December 2012, the government issued a sub-decree No 259 calling for 4,200 hectares of forestry land to be cut out of land given to four private companies that had licenses for economic land concessions (ELCs) to invest in plantations in the area. The government wanted this land to be given to local residents. This land, however, is not in the area where the land dispute is flaring, according to the report on Sunday from Governor Khouy Khun Hour.
He confirmed “that the sub-decree telling authorities in Chhuk district, Kampot province, to cut almost 4,200 hectares of forestry land and land concession from private companies in order offer to local people… applied to a different area from where the land dispute is flaring.”
In May 2012, Prime Minister Hun Sen released “Order 01,” which resulted in a nationwide land-title campaign conducted by thousands of student volunteer surveyors.
After the campaign, the government announced that they issued 610,000 titles to local villagers covering 1.2 million hectares of land. Of this land, about 380,000 hectares came from state-owned land that had been allotted to 134 ELCs, about 270,000 hectares came from 17 Forest Concession Companies and about 530,000 hectares was from state land.
“However, at that time, the land [about 4,200 hectares of forestry land from four private companies] was measured for land titles by the volunteer surveyor group with public notification,” the report stated, reiterating that this land was not the same land where the dispute is occurring.
In 2011, Prime Minister Hun Sen signed sub-decree No 219, which designated this piece of land to be converted into an SLCs for specific allocation to retired and disabled army personnel. A total of 1,288 hectares, previously marked as part of the Bokor National Park and under the control of the Ministry of Environment, was subsequently granted to the Kampot Provincial authorities, according to this sub-decree.
Authorities subsequently built homes for retired and disabled army personnel on this land, with family plots measuring 30 by 40 meters. The plan stated that each former soldier would be awarded an additional one hectare of land for cultivation, with the goal of enabling them to become self-sufficient once they received the free housing and land.
Provincial officials say 816 families are squatting on land in the commune. These families are saying that sub-decree No 259 designated them as the benefactors of the land, whereas provincial authorities say this land has always been meant for retired soldiers.
“The land committee has measured land for 64 families of the land grabbers, who actually occupied the SLC, and land for another 34 families of the retired soldiers,” the report by the governor said. “After being incited to protest, the committee decided to postpone their processing in order to monitor the situation and identify the ringleader of the protest.”
The dispute has led to protests in Phnom Penh recently. The protesters claim that there are 816 families who have been occupying the land and who have had a dispute with provincial authorities about the SLC.
The leaders of the protest are basing their claims on sub-decree No 259, which is the number of families listed in this sub-decree. However, provincial officials say the protest leaders are mistaken in that the land they are claiming is in another area.
“The land committee has conducted a local census, and the census found that there are only 405 families who actually occupied the SLC,” the report said.
“We will give land plots to those [405 families] who actually occupy the land based on Order 01 of the government,” Chieng Phalla, another deputy governor of the province, told Khmer Times. He was referring to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s land-titling campaign. He did not say what would happen to the other families claiming land. Provincial officials say this number keeps fluctuating.