Opposition lawmakers and rights groups on Tuesday criticized as unfair a letter from Prime Minister Hun Sen defending a government land concession at the heart of an escalating dispute with villagers.
Hun Sen said in a written response to lawmakers the 9,000-hectare concession in Kampong Speu province had been legally given to the Phnom Penh Sugar Industry, Co.
“The land concession to the company was legally issued by the Ministry of Agriculture,” Hun Sen wrote in July, responding to a March request for information from seven National Assembly lawmakers from the opposition Sam Rainsy Party.
Yim Sovann, a spokesman for the Sam Rainsy Party, said the letter was not acceptable. It was not the result of a proper investigation and had been based on a report made by the company itself, he said.
Chheang Kim Sun, a representative for Phnom Penh Sugar, which is owned by Cambodian People's Party lawmaker Ly Yong Phat, said Tuesday she supported Hun Sen's letter, claiming the company had followed the Ministry of Agriculture's land concession and not encroached on the land of the people.
However, villagers at the Kampong Speu concession say they are being pushed off 2,000 hectares of land as the company expands. Villagers have been protesting the concession since March, in demonstrations that have seen company equipment and buildings torched, several protesters jailed, and the blockade of a national road.
About 400 families across nine villages say they are being pushed off the land, and representatives are now saying they want compensation in order to move.
Chan Soveth, an investigator for the rights group Adhoc, said he did not agree with the premier's response.
“This response letter will encourage all land concessions in Cambodia to undertake more abuses of the land of the people,” he said.
Hun Sen in his letter also criticized the opposition and rights groups for encouraging villagers to protest.
Village representative Yu Tho, who was jailed for briefly earlier this year following a protest in Kampong Speu, said no one from the opposition party or local NGOs had incited the demonstrations.
“This is a real abuse of the people's land,” he said. “If the prime minister wants to see clearly, he should come directly to my area to see how this is affecting the land of the people.”