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In Land Grabs, Political Opportunity

[Editor's note: In the weeks leading into national polls, VOA Khmer will explore a wide number of election issues. The "Election Issues 2008" series will air stories on Tuesday and Wednesday, followed by a related "Hello VOA" guest on Thursday. This is the second in a two-part series examining land grabs in Cambodia.]

Anyone who has lost land knows what kind of sorrow high land prices can bring. With land thefts continuing, political parties are hoping they can convince people that they understand.

The issue is complex, though, and not every party has a solution, even if they do plan to make land thefts a top issue in this year's general election.

"We must raise [measures to solve the land dispute] because many people are also of the Cambodian People's Party," said Chiem Yeap, a CPP lawmaker. "We want them to know about the activities and measures of the government, especially Samdech Prime Minister and the National Land Dispute Authority."

The issue was complicated and aroused a lot of emotion, he said, claiming that the CPP would continue to seek measures to help at the local level as a way to earn votes in July.

The land issue is in main principle for Funcinpec, said lawmaker Monh Saphan.

"First we should let [people] know that [land disputes] is an important issue," he said. "We will check: how much land concession remains, and how much land is kept for investment, and if no activity remains. We will review all."

Monh Saphan said he himself would work the issue because it affected voters in his area of Kampong Cham province.

Opposition lawmaker Ho Vann said he had visited some provinces, such as Kampong Chhnang and Batteay Meanchey and Phnom Penh, and the cases of land grabbing were serious.

"Regarding our policy for the electoral campaign, we will resolve land disputes for the people fairly," he said. "If the land of the people is given to the people, and the land of company is given to the company, and if a company wants to buy land from the people, it must offer the people the fair and acceptable price."

Muth Chantha, spokesman for the Norodom Ranariddh Party, which took the third-highest number of seats in the 2007 commune elections, said land disputes were the top priority for the party.

The party hoped to initiate a system of ownership certificates it would distribute in hopes of preventing land grabs, he said.

"We would also take measures to confiscate state lands that have been illegally occupied by businessmen, 'Okhnas' or high-ranking officers," he added.

Chum Bun Rong, spokesman for the Land Dispute Authority and advisor to the Council of Ministers, said wealthy people and high-ranking officers dare not grab anyone's land for fear of losing their reputation and government jobs.

Many people have grabbed the land of the investors, he added.

"We must help [the investors] because they possess the lands legally and develop our country," he said.

The government is working to take care of the landless, he said, and is prepared to give up state land to some, though he did not elaborate.

Land thefts are not the only issue to gain votes, said Kim Chhorn, Comfrel's senior program coordinator.

Comfrel reported recently that SRP lawmakers stepped in to resolve constituent issues 38 times between October 2006 and September 2007. CPP lawmakers stepped in 15 times, and Funcinpec parliamentarians twice.