October 7, 2012,
PHNOM PENH (AFP) - Cambodian students have fanned out across the
impoverished nation to help grant land titles to villagers in an
ambitious but contentious new scheme spearheaded by the prime minister.
Hun Sen announced his titling plan in June, apparently without first
consulting local authorities and communities, it was billed as a way to
clamp down on land conflicts, seen as Cambodia's most pressing human
But the strongman premier later backtracked, saying
the more than 1,600 student volunteers recruited would not be measuring
land in disputed areas at all, baffling campaigners who already
lamented a lack of detail about the plan.
"For those in
non-conflict areas it's very good, but it doesn't address the major
problem. People who are most in need of land titles won't receive
them," said Nicolas Agostini of local rights group ADHOC.
university students are now tasked with demarcating 1.8 million
hectares (4.4 million acres) of uncontested territory so officials can
issue titles to 470,000 families within the next few months.
the project's first major milestone last month, Hun Sen personally
delivered more than 500 property titles to families in Kratie, the same
eastern province where security forces shot dead a 14-year-old girl
during a land battle with villagers in May, in a case that shocked the
Land ownership is a highly controversial issue in
Cambodia, where the communist Khmer Rouge regime banned private
property in the late 1970s and many legal documents were lost.
observers have welcomed the land tenure security offered by the new
scheme, which the premier says will encourage owners to invest in their
property and boost the rural economy.
But Agostini said serious questions remained and attempts to silence or sideline independent observers were "not acceptable".
Sen, 61, who has been in power since 1985 and is seeking re-election
next year, has boasted of paying the students a monthly salary of some
$220 out of his own pocket -- double of what the country's garment
Rights groups say privately the scheme reeks of an
election ploy by one of the world's longest-serving leaders who has
vowed to stay in power until he is 90.
But campaigners face "a
significant risk" if they go public with their concerns, a Western
diplomat who did not want to be named told AFP.
When a well-known
land rights advocate expressed reservations about using inexperienced
students and suggested the scheme was an attempt to boost Hun Sen's
image, he was threatened by a government-affiliated youth group.
"They told me if I continue to criticise government policy, they are not responsible for what happens to me," Sia Phearum said.
rights organisations voiced dismay at the threat, though long-time
Cambodia watchers say it is not uncommon in a country where activists
routinely face intimidation and criminalisation.
in its haste to develop the impoverished nation, has in recent years
come under fire from rights groups and the UN for granting swathes of
land to well-connected firms, prompting a spate of evictions and
increasingly violent protests pitting villagers against developers.
some of the strongest comments yet on the new land titling scheme, UN
human rights envoy Surya Subedi said in a report last month that
non-governmental groups had been warned "not to intervene" with the
"Harassment and intimidation of individuals involved
have been widely reported. The absence of civil society organisations
has left many communities, families and individuals unaware of their
rights," he wrote.
Subedi also pointed out that the titling
project fails to address "the crux of the problem" by avoiding disputed
land, and echoed concerns about the deployment of volunteers who often
get just two days of training and are confusingly clad in military
Land ministry spokesman Beng Hong Socheat Khemro
dismissed Subedi's comments as having "no value", saying the students'
role was to prevent future land conflicts and not to solve existing
The youngsters are ideally suited to help because they
have the skills to operate the satellite navigation system equipment
used to measure land and because they are "honest", he said.