Officials from the Pursat and Mondulkiri provincial administrations have rejected the findings of a new Adhoc report which claimed that wrongful arrest, allegations and detention of people involved in land disputes was rampant, and that corruption was rife in the mediation of such cases.
The report by the human rights NGO alleged that actions were taken by authorities in order to intimidate and discourage landowners from exercising their rights to demand justice in nearly all the cases documented.
However, officials insisted that authorities did not act in any way that violated the rights of landowners or people who had been displaced.
Pursat provincial deputy governor Khoy Rida claimed that as a local authority, he had never violated any human rights, and was merely enforcing the law according to the situation at hand.
He said authorities had the role and responsibility of protecting natural resources and state property, suggesting that in the cases referenced in the report, authorities were taking action against those suspected of committing illegal activity.
Rida flatly rejected the findings of the report, saying: “That is [Adhoc’s] point of view. They are welcome to say what they like.”
He said the government had always punished those who flouted the law, including its own law enforcers.
The Adhoc report – titled “The continued accusation, arrest, and detention of people in land disputes” – claimed that there were 169 documented land disputes in 2021, encompassing a total of 52,601.87ha of land.
A total of 17,033 households – representing 61,469 people and 1,347 indigenous families – were found to have been affected in the disputes, with 93 cases involving encroachment on land by powerful and wealthy figures, it said.
Arrests, allegations and detentions were cited in 40 of 169 cases, with 35 of them involving 157 people who were accused of criminal activities and subsequently placed under court supervision.
Six cases involved 17 people being put in pre-trial detention.
In one case, it noted, a person fell seriously ill and died while on the way to the hospital.
The report also revealed the severe toll of land disputes on communities, of which several had a high number of members being accused of criminal acts and placed under court supervision. It said 44 people were wrongly implicated in Tbong Khmum province, 28 in Oddar Meanchey province, 21 in Kandal province, 18 in Kratie province, and 15 in Kampong Speu province.
In Kandal province, large-scale land disputes had increased in 2021. Violence, arrests, detentions, and shootings had been documented in the Kandal Stung district dispute between the community landowners and local conglomerate Overseas Cambodia Investment Corporation (OCIC) – the developer which is building the new Phnom Penh international airport in the district.
In another dispute in Sa’ang district, an activist died en route to Chey Chumneas Hospital from prison. And in a dispute in Ang Snoul district, armed forces allegedly opened fire on the local community, seriously injuring a resident.
The report assessed that the “wrongful” arrest, accusation, and detention of people in land disputes were intended to break the spirit of landowners so that they would be intimidated out of exercising their rights to demand justice.
“Rice crops had been cleared. There were shooting threats. Many community members had been accused and some were detained,” it said.
In several land disputes in Thnal Bat village in Banteay Meanchey province, the report claimed that accused community members were put in handcuffs.
In a dispute in the Ream National Park area in Preah Sihanouk province, members of the armed forces allegedly demolished residents’ houses and accused and detained a large number of residents.
Land disputes were also documented in Oral, Stung Chral and Thpong districts of Kampong Speu province, and in Boeung Chhuok village of Phnom Penh.
The report also showed that the well-connect and wealthy, as well as companies, had exerted undue influence on officials through the lack of public consultation in development projects, such as in the case of land disputes among the Bunong indigenous community in Kbal Romeas commune of Stung Treng province.
Thousands of hectares of economic land concessions were at the heart of the disputes in Preah Sihanouk province’s Koh Rong between villagers and local conglomerate Royal Group, and in Bit Traing commune of the province’s Prey Nop district.
The disputes in Kampong Speu province’s Phnom Sruoch district, Siem Reap province’s Banteay Srei district, and Kampong Thom province’s Kampong Svay district were all the result of incomplete and biased law enforcement, the report alleged.
Adhoc said the report hoped to urge the government and courts at all levels to “delay legal actions, drop the charges, and stop the arrest and detention of people in land disputes in Cambodia, as well as to punish the destruction of people’s property and crops”.
Rida challenged the NGO on its plea to the government, suggesting that it was an unreasonable expectation and was ultimately up to the authority to decide on a course of action for themselves.
“It’s the royal government which has all levels of management. And if [Adhoc] bans it, let’s wait and see: when [they have] a duty to do it [themselves], what can [they] do?” he said.
He claimed that there would be “anarchy” if the government were to act on the request by Adhoc to stop arresting and detaining people involved in land disputes.
“[F]or now, I think [stopping the arrests of those instigating disputes] is not possible. If you do, it creates anarchy. We do not know who respects whom. Who implements the law? Who disobeys the law?
“We [will] not know which natural resources are state property if we do not control them closely,” he said.
Deputy Mondulkiri provincial governor Cheak Mengheang also rejected the report’s findings, opining that authorities had always taken care to serve the people and had not violated their rights or done anything to engender fear.
He claimed that when people had relied on land for their livelihoods and had occupied it for a long time, the authorities have always studied, researched and made decisions based on the information provided.
“As authorities – a mother and a father of the people – we have never [wrongfully] arrested or detained the people, nor have we intimidated or bullied them.
“That is to say, we stop and prevent only ill-intentioned people who have encroached on state private land or public state land,” he added.