Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen mocked a group of ethnic minority villagers who tried to petition him on Friday about their land dispute in northern Cambodia’s Rattanakiri province, after they were stopped from presenting their complaint during his visit on a land-titling campaign.
Hun Sen was attending an event in Andoung Meas district to distribute deeds for land that his volunteer youth movement had been sent to measure for local villagers, when four representatives from a Charai hill tribe community in neighboring Bar Keo district came to present him with their petition.
The four were representing some 200 families involved in the dispute with a Cambodian company whose rubber plantation, they say, had been encroaching on their community-owned indigenous land after the company bought 10 hectares (25 acres) of property from nearby villages.
The company, Kouv Kem Leng, has banned villagers from cultivating their land and local authorities have failed to resolve their dispute, according to one of the representatives, Hang Ror.
The activists wanted to hand their petition to Hun Sen, but were stopped by security guards at the event, Hang Ror said.
“I wanted to hand the petition over to Samdech [Hun Sen] to have him review the case but the guards searched me,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service, using the prime minister’s honorific title.
Later, during his speech at the land-titling ceremony, Hun Sen mocked the Bar Keo activists for saying that the government should not develop the indigenous areas in order to preserve their culture.
“I was so angry. Do you want to have development or do you want to have the indigenous people collecting stuff in the forest?” he asked.
But in the same speech, he also pledged to protect indigenous land and culture.
He said rubber plantations are part of how the government is working to develop remote areas in the province, which is home to many indigenous communities and hill tribes.
Hun Sen was on a tour of Rattanakiri to inaugurate a new national highway linking the province to Stung Treng province, and to distribute land titles.
Over 10,000 land titles have been distributed across the country since June when Hun Sen’s program to deploy student volunteers to measure private land began, as part of a campaign to address land disputes across the country.
Land disputes are a bitter problem for Cambodia, where rural villagers and urban dwellers alike have been mired in conflicts that the U.N.’s special rapporteur for human rights to Cambodia has warned could threaten the country’s stability.
The country’s land issues date from the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, which forced large-scale evacuations and relocations, followed by a period of mass confusion over land rights and the formation of squatter communities when the refugees returned in the 1990s after a decade of civil war.
Hun Sen vowed last month that his government would help to resolve land disputes, but only those in which nongovernmental organizations or political parties had not become involved, warning victims of land disputes not to turn to such organizations for support.
He later walked back his criticism of such groups, but reiterated that they had worsened the country’s land problems by meddling in land conflicts.
According to local watchdog Licadho, at least 400,000 people have been affected by land disputes over the past decade in just half of Cambodia’s provinces, mostly after land concessions were granted to private companies in their area.
Rights groups say indigenous communities can be particularly vulnerable to losing their land.
Penn Bonnar, senior investigator for the local rights group Adhoc, which monitors land disputes in the country, said indigenous land protection is important for the communities and to preserve their culture and livelihoods.
He said that since 2003, thousands of hectares (thousands of acres) of indigenous land have been encroached upon and urged the government to protect land belonging to indigenous people.
“So far we have seen forest destruction committed arbitrarily within their rotation plantations but when [the communities] file complaints to the court, the court threatens to imprison them.”
“We are demanding the government resolve land disputes without discrimination,” he said.
Reported by Sok Ratha for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.