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Campaigners Dismiss Facebook as a Solution to Land Problems

Screenshot of Prime Minister Hun Sen's Facebook page taken on Sunday January 24, 2016.
Screenshot of Prime Minister Hun Sen's Facebook page taken on Sunday January 24, 2016.

A spokesman told VOA Khmer that commenting on Hun Sen’s Facebook page was “better than submitting a petition.”

Activists have cast doubt on whether Prime Minister Hun Sen’s new initiative for the country’s problems to be solved through social media can tackle the country’s most pervasive problem—land disputes.

The long-serving ruler has declared that Facebook is now the best way for Cambodian citizens to raise concerns with his government. A spokesman told VOA Khmer that commenting on Hun Sen’s Facebook page was “better than submitting a petition.”

Hun Sen—who as the head of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party holds almost absolute power within Cambodia’s government apparatus—has used his Facebook page so far to coordinate the launch of the new Traffic Law at the start of this year, and in responding to public calls on the site to lift tolls on National Road 4.

This may seem like a smart, modern way to the solve problems. But land rights activists who have over the years tried myriad methods of raising awareness of land issues among the authorities—often to no avail—are doubtful.

Land disputes have been a major source of conflict in Cambodia since the government began giving concessions to companies in the 1990s. It is believed that more than 2 million hectares of land were at one stage leased to private firms, often in exchange for nominal sums paid into official coffers under the economic land concession, or ELC, policy.

Hun Sen placed a freeze on new ELCs in 2012, but disputes remain over many of the concessions, which were often issued for areas occupied by residents or covered with virgin forests.

Eng Vuthy, executive director for the nongovernmental organization Equitable Cambodia said that raising land disputes with the government had never been the problem. But this was usually followed by government inaction, he said.

“It depends on whether the government takes measures to solve the problems,” Vuthy said. “If the people submit questions and they solve the issue immediately, it might reduce the protests.”

Sia Phearum, secretariat director of Housing Rights Task Force, noted that the government had set up a national committee to tackle land disputes after the freeze of new ELCs. That committee lacked effectiveness, however, he said, suggesting that real solutions to land disputes have to come from the prime minister himself.

“Only if there is an order from the PM do the people under supervision take action immediately,” said Phearum. “But a moment later the committee becomes inactive.”

While Hun Sen has ordered his officials to be responsive to the public on Facebook, he might instead find a way to make sure his officials perform their ordinary tasks properly, he added.

Tep Vanny, one of thousands of residents of the former Boeng Kak lake area of Phnom Penh who were kicked out of their homes to make way for a massive development project, has lead protests demanding a fair settlement. The residents have staged public protests on the streets—often met with brute force by the authorities—and gathered signatures for petitions that they delivered to Hun Sen’s own home.

Despite years of a highly visible protest campaign, some Boeng Kak residents still say they have not received adequate compensation for their homes. Given this history, Vanny is not optimistic that the prime minister’s Facebook initiative will make the government more responsive to land conflicts.

“Nobody wants to struggle with protest and face a violent response if there can be a peaceful solution. But they have no choice,” she said. ​“Previously, we have taken a lot of actions. We tried to submit a petition at the PM’s residence as well as other institutions. However, the outcome was not so positive.”

Government spokesman Phay Siphan acknowledged that the government had not always been responsive to citizens demands. But he said Hun Sen’s plans for using Facebook would help to bridge the gap.

“Reporting their problems through that platform is better than submitting a petition,” Siphan said. “The people can just write on Facebook from anywhere. That way the prime minister can see what the people are demanding. A special committee in each ministry will respond accordingly.”

“If it’s about politics, the PM will respond directly,” he added.