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Critics Warn Against Hun Sen’s Avoiding Land Disputes

Land grabs for rural and urban development projects have created a mass of ongoing protests, particularly from ousted residents of the Boeung Kak and Borei Keila neighborhoods of Phnom Penh, who are highly organized and consistently hold demonstrations that often lead to violent clashes with police.

Rights and advocacy groups say the problem is one of laws and the will to solve them, not of vested parties.

PHNOM PENH - Prime Minister Hun Sen has publicly warned he cannot resolve land disputes that are wrapped up with politics, in what critics claim is a veiled threat to deter civic organizations and parliamentarians from helping people who have been displaced from their land and homes and have little recourse.

Land disputes across Cambodia are seldom solved with local officials or other government institutions, which has led to many demonstrations over the past several years, any of them violent.

Hun Sen’s warning seemed aimed at the opposition parties, rights groups and other civic organizations that have helped displaced people organize, as Cambodia prepares for a general parliamentary election, to be held in July 2013, when land issues are likely to be a key issue.

“We shouldn’t have political incitement,” the premier said at the inauguration of a highway overpass on the outskirts of Phnom Penh on Monday. “Whenever there is political involvement, we cannot solve it out, even if we try until we die.”

Kem Sokha, head of the opposition Human Rights Party, said people who have land grievances will first try to solve them with the local authorities or the government, but failing that, they often turn to their parliamentarians or civil society.

If Hun Sen prevents this process, he said, “he causes people to be strongly outraged.”

The warning indicated Hun Sen’s worries that he cannot address ongoing land problems, such as the protests from ousted residents of the Phnom Penh neighborhoods of Beoung Kak and Borei Keila, as well as rural land concessions that have continued to anger people in the provinces, Kem Sokha said.

“The prime minister cannot ban civil society and political parties, because it is their obligations to take care of the people,” he said. “If the leader cannot tackle it, others have obligations to the people, as the people are not the people of the ruling party alone.”

Rights and advocacy groups say the problem is one of laws and the will to solve them, not of vested parties.

Ny Chakrya, lead investigator for the rights group Adhoc, said it is not the prime minister, nor civil society, nor the opposition who are supposed to solve these issues, which are essentially legal disputes for the courts. On the other hand, he said, there are no laws to prevent any one party from helping people solve their problems.

The ruling Cambodian People’s party wants “100 percent control” of problem solving for the people, he said, and seems concerned that other groups will gain popularity by trying to aid in land issues.

Yim Sovann, a spokesman for the Sam Rainsy Party, said people would not seek help elsewhere if the government were able to solve their disputes and dilemmas. Some problems are caused by the government itself, when it provides land to companies where people already live, he added.

“As those officials ignore, oppress the people, are corrupt and cause people to unjustly suffer, then the people have no choice,” he said. “However, in a country with the rule of law and independent courts, it is the obligation of the government and the courts to find justice for the people.”

Sia Phearum, director of the Human Rights Task Force, which advocates for housing and land rights for the displaced, said the opposition parties and non-governmental organizations involved in land issues are those who give legal advice to people, or help them reach out to higher levels of government, especially when they do not have a fair chance in the courts.

“Because the institutions involved do not function properly, don’t have enough power to solve the problems, then the issues can never be resolved,” he said. “We can also say that it is because the government has little will to address the issues.”