PHNOM PENH —
A controversial land titling program set up by Prime Minister Hun Sen has been suspended ahead of the July 28 elections, but critics say the program should not be restarted.
The program relies on youth brigades loyal to the ruling party to settle land disputes that have become an ongoing, vexing issue for national and local authorities.
The rights group Adhoc says it has received 17 complaints in 2013 alone related to the alleged bias of the youth program.
Many people report the titling program failing those who need it most, villagers who are already in disputes over land across the country.
Bou Dy, 45, from Koh Kong province, said the youth volunteers did not measure land for at least a dozen people in his village, because the families were locked in a land dispute with a concession company.
“In Ratanakkiri or Mondolkiri, they have land conflicts with companies, but the youths measured for them,” he said. “Why not us? The youth volunteers said they could not measure without a green light from local authorities.”
Khouch Tep Thida, a 25-year-old resident of Pursat province, said the the youth brigade did not measure 150 hectares of land for 23 families in her community, that too because of a conflict with a company.
Prime Minister Hun Sen in 2012 said that in disputes between companies and local residents, areas of land should be reserved for villagers. That followed a decision to halt land concessions and begin better titling to reduce disputes.
The titling program itself began in December 2012 and is expected to end after elections scheduled for later this month. According to government figures, the program has measured off some 620,000 plots of land, of which 260,000 were titled, in 322 communes.
Still, land concessions and forced evictions continue to be a sweeping problem. Human Rights Watch estimates about 700,000 people are being affected by economic land concessions to foreign companies or local business interests, many with ties to officials in the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. Human Rights Watch has called on the World Bank and the United Nations to revise the titling process.
Am Sam Ath, chief monitor for the rights group Licadho, said the youth program has proven problematic. The process only starts after an evaluation by local authorities, a process that is open to abuse.
“There are many doubts arising from these evaluations, as some local people allege that some people have never lived there but they are getting land titles,” he said. “If there is any corruption or irregularities, they are taking place at this evaluation stage.”
Chan Soveth, a prominent rights worker for Adhoc, said the youths can only measure land after an order from authorities. But now that a second phase of the project, which began in January, is under way, there is a lot of “mistrust,” he said.
“People’s hopes to obtain land titles have faded away, because the land measuring seems to be provided only to the rich and powerful, not the poor,” he said.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said complaints about the program should be filed with the courts.
The program does have some supporters. Franz-Volker Muller, who oversees a land rights program for the German development agency GIZ, recently issued a report on the program, praising it for titling 2 million people with state land they had previously occupied illegally.
“This can be considered a tremendous step towards the progressive realization of human rights of Cambodia’s vulnerable and poor populations in the rural areas,” he wrote.