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.
When 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 rights issue.
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.
The 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.
In 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 nation.
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.
Many 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”.
Hun 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 workers earn.
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.
Local 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.
The government, 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.
In 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 project.
“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 fatigues.
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 conflicts.
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.