Cambodian students have fanned out across the impoverished nation to help grant land titles to villagers in an ambitious, but contentious new scheme spearheaded by the prime minister.
When Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced his titling plan in June, apparently without first consulting local authorities and communities, it was billed as a way to clamp down on land conflicts, seen as Cambodia’s most pressing human rights issue.
However, the prime minister later backtracked, saying the more than 1,600 student volunteers recruited would not be measuring land in disputed areas at all, baffling campaigners who already lamented a lack of detail about the plan.
“For those in non-conflict areas it’s very good, but it doesn’t address the major problem. People who are most in need of land titles won’t receive them,” said Nicolas Agostini of local rights group ADHOC.
The university students are now tasked with demarcating 1.8 million hectares of uncontested territory so officials can issue titles to 470,000 families within the next few months.
In the project’s first major milestone last month, Hun Sen personally delivered more than 500 property titles to families in Kratie Province, the eastern province where security forces shot dead a 14-year-old girl during a land battle with villagers in May.
Land ownership is a highly controversial issue in Cambodia, where the communist Khmer Rouge regime banned private property in the late 1970s and many legal documents were lost.
Many observers have welcomed the land tenure security offered by the new scheme, but Agostini said serious questions remained and attempts to silence or sideline independent observers were “not acceptable.”
Hun Sen, 61, who has been in power since 1985 and is seeking re-election next year, has boasted of paying the students a monthly salary of about US$220 out of his own pocket — double what the country’s garment workers earn.
Rights groups say privately the scheme reeks of an election ploy by one of the world’s longest-serving leaders, who has vowed to stay in power until he is 90.
However, campaigners face “a significant risk” if they go public with their concerns, a Western diplomat who did not want to be named said.
When a well-known land rights advocate expressed reservations about using inexperienced students and suggested the scheme was an attempt to boost Hun Sen’s image, he was threatened by a government-affiliated youth group.
“They told me if I continue to criticize government policy, they are not responsible for what happens to me,” Sia Phearum said.
Local rights organizations voiced dismay at the threat, though long-time Cambodia watchers say it is not uncommon.
The government, in its haste to develop the impoverished nation, has in recent years come under fire from rights groups and the UN for granting swathes of land to well-connected firms, prompting a spate of evictions and increasingly violent protests pitting villagers against developers.
In some of the strongest comments yet on the new land titling scheme, UN human rights envoy Surya Subedi said in a report last month that non-governmental groups had been warned “not to intervene.”
“Harassment and intimidation of individuals involved have been widely reported. The absence of civil society organizations has left many communities, families and individuals unaware of their rights,” he wrote.
Subedi also said that the titling project fails to address “the crux of the problem” by avoiding disputed land, and echoed concerns about the deployment of volunteers who often get just two days of training and are confusingly clad in military fatigues.
Cambodian land ministry spokesman Beng Hong Socheat Khemro dismissed Subedi’s comments as having “no value,” saying the students’ role was to prevent future land conflicts and not to solve existing conflicts.
The youngsters are ideally suited to help because they have the skills to operate the satellite navigation system equipment used to measure land and because they are “honest,” he said.