WASHINGTON DC - Cambodian politicians have begun a public campaign to defend their records on land policies, as they prepare for the run-up to July elections.
Politicians from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, as well as the opposition Sam Rainsy and Human Rights parties, have said they will give free land titles and not take land or tax from farmers.
But Cambodia has been plagued with ongoing land grabs, forced evictions and bitter disputes since the last national election, in 2008, and the issue is likely to be a main political battleground in the parliamentary elections.
Candidates for the opposition, which will merge into the Cambodia National Rescue Party for the election, say they do not have policies to tax farmland, but would tax land concessions for local and foreign businesses, which they say will promote the economy, better living standards for Cambodians, and give higher salaries to civil servants and provide retirement funding for people over the age of 65.
“If we do this, we absolutely will not touch the poor,” Kem Sokha, who is currently head of the Human Rights Party, told VOA Khmer by phone from France. “We would only help the poor. Not only won’t we tax farmers, but we’ll also protect their land for them.”
Son Chhay, a lawmaker for the Sam Rainsy Party, said a tax can be applied to 99-year leases on land concessions from foreign investors or powerful local interests.
“If Cambodia leases for 99 years, we need $70 a year per hectare of land,” he said. “We ask that the government do it quickly, because the government cannot allow businessmen who hold millions of hectares of deforested land to sell land worth hundreds of millions of dollars—while the Cambodian government gets not one riel from those huge tracts of land.”
Land issues are persistent, and many Cambodians know now of the abuse of land policies, so the ruling party should be concerned, he said. “So the government, especially the ruling party, fears this very much, because it is not a small problem,” he said. “That’s why [Prime Minister Hun Sen] has gradually started to propagandize, in order to overstate the trust, contradicting what we are stressing.”
Ruling party and opposition lawmakers tried to address the 2013 national budget in December, which came to $3 billion, with Cambodia continuing to borrow about a billion dollars a year from the international community. Opposition lawmakers say foreign debt can be reduced by taxing 2.8 million hectares of land concessions, as well as the country 50-some casinos and other revenues. Opposition lawmakers say this can improve civil servant salaries and provide retirement funds. But their recommendations were rejected by ruling party lawmakers in charge of the budget, who said they came too late for this year’s budget.
Meanwhile, Hun Sen said in a public address this week that he will give away land titles and avoid taxing the poor.
“I have declared already that as long as I myself, Hun Sen, exists, and as long as the Cambodian People’s Party exists, the land tax will not be levied on the people,” he said. From the fall of the Khmer Rouge until today, he said, Cambodians have not been taxed, which means they have received money directly.
National parliamentary elections are scheduled for July 28, and Cambodia’s land problems are emerging as a key issue.
But Sok Touch, dean of Khemarak University, told VOA Khmer by phone that a tax on land is necessary in many countries.
“I don’t think farmers have a lot of land to be taxed,” he said. “Those who have a lot of land are powerful people and those who have hundreds of hectares would be impacted.” Decisions not to tax the land are made by politicians looking for votes, he said.