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Cablegate: Update On Land Issues in Cambodia

VZCZCXRO6704
RR RUEHCHI RUEHDT RUEHHM RUEHNH
DE RUEHPF #0654/01 2450852
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 020852Z SEP 09
FM AMEMBASSY PHNOM PENH
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 1143
INFO RUCNASE/ASEAN MEMBER COLLECTIVE

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 PHNOM PENH 000654

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

STATE FOR EAP/MLS, DRL, AND H
USAID FOR ASIA BUREAU

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PHUM EAGR SENV KDEM CB
SUBJECT: UPDATE ON LAND ISSUES IN CAMBODIA

REF: A) PHNOM PENH 60, B) PHNOM PENH 285, C) PHNOM PENH 379, D)
PHNOM PENH 62, E) PHNOM PENH 509, F) PHNOM PENH 538, G) PHNOM PENH
557, H) 08 PHNOM PENH 991

SENSITIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED

1. (SBU) SUMMARY. The combination of a lax land titling system and
the Royal Government of Cambodia's (RGC) push to develop the country
through land concessions has led to widespread land disputes. Due
process rights related to land management, including ownership
disputes and evictions, remains a hot-button human rights issue in
Cambodia that receives a high level of attention from civil society
and donors. The World Bank's Land Management and Administration
Program (LMAP) may be suspended until the RGC develops a new policy
on resolving land disputes, including a consistent policy on
resettlement and compensation, to avoid forced evictions. This
cable provides updates on some of the highest-profile land disputes
and U.S. engagement on the issue. END SUMMARY.

WHY LAND IS SUCH A HOT ISSUE IN CAMBODIA
----------------------------------------

2. (SBU) Cambodia's troubled history left its land management sector
in a disorganized state, the ramifications of which still impact its
government and people. Forced collectivization during the Khmer
Rouge rule, the return of hundreds of thousands of refugees, and the
late introduction of the concept of private property in the early
1990's led to the practice of claiming land by simply taking it. In
2001, the RGC passed a land law that attempted to bring structure to
the land ownership and titling process, but implementation of the
law has been slow due to a lack of funding, capacity, and political
will. As a result, today over 90% of Cambodian land owners still
lack formal documentation of their ownership, leaving them
vulnerable to challenge (REF A provides detailed analysis of land
ownership and titling issues).

3. (SBU) The RGC has capitalized on relatively recent political
stability and security in country to accelerate infrastructure and
commercial development. Frequently the RGC outsources development
initiatives to the private sector in the form of land concessions,
for projects ranging from industrial agricultural ventures to
hydropower dams, bridges, and shopping malls. The land law includes
categories of state land and rules for how those categories can be
leased and used. However, the granting and implementation of these
concessions is typically non-transparent (see REF B for details on
land concession and urban development issues).

4. (SBU) The combination of a lax land titling system and the RGC's
unsystematic push to develop the country through land concessions
has led to widespread land disputes. The RGC targets an area it
considers state land for development, while private citizens, who
often lack hard titles, claim the same land as personal property.
The land law provides Cambodians with the right to apply for title
to certain categories of land they have peacefully possessed for
more than five years, beginning prior to 2001. However, because
most land remains unclassified, disputes center on RGC definitions
of state and private land versus those of private citizens.

5. (SBU) When communities lose these disputes, the manner in which
they are evicted varies from case to case and can involve
significant financial and legal pressure, or police and even
military force. In some cases, evictees are offered compensation in
the form of money or a plot of land, but the compensation is rarely
adequate, especially in urban eviction cases. These forced
evictions without adequate compensation of communities from land for
which they could assert ownership have earned the attention of human
rights NGOs, donors, and the media (REF C discusses in detail the
due process and human rights concerns resulting from land issues in
Cambodia). Updates on some of these high-profile cases follow.

UPDATES ON HIGH-PROFILE CASES
-----------------------------

6. (SBU) DEY KRAHORM (REF D): In January 2009, police, military
police, municipal authorities, and employees of Cambodian
construction firm 7NG forcibly evicted residents of the Dey Krahorm
community in central Phnom Penh, injuring approximately 18
individuals. As of August, all families that "owned" land in Dey
Krahorm received cash compensation or an apartment in the designated
resettlement site Damnak Trayoeng. 335 families who were renters in
Dey Krahorm continued to live in temporary shelters around the
resettlement site. Despite government claims that the Dey Krahorm
land had to be cleared quickly to make way for development, as of
August the site remained empty.

7. (SBU) GROUP 78 (REF E): Despite outstanding ownership claims
filed with the Cadastral Commission and the National Authority for
Land Dispute Resolution, the Phnom Penh Municipal Government gave
residents of the Phnom Penh Tonle Bassac neighborhood known as Group

PHNOM PENH 00000654 002 OF 003


78 (G78) until July 15 to accept one of three compensation offers,
all of which were significantly lower than the value of the land
(appraised in March 2009), or face forced eviction. All families
but one took the cash compensation and have relocated to areas
around the city. On July 17, municipal police removed the final
family, who did not accept a compensation package but reportedly had
adequate shelter elsewhere.

8. (SBU) INCITEMENT CHARGES AGAINST NGO WORKERS (REF F): An NGO
staffer and Sam Rainsy Party commune councilor who were held in
pre-trial detention on charges of incitement stemming from a land
dispute protest in Bantey Meanchey were released on bail August 14.
A hearing date has not yet been set. Human rights NGO ADHOC
relocated two staffers from Ratanakiri Province after they were
summoned for questioning on incitement charges related to a land
dispute between ethnic minority villagers and a private company.
Although a vocal judge made intimidating statements against the
ADHOC staffers, the Ratanakiri prosecutor indicated that no charges
would be brought.

9. (SBU) BOREI KEILA (REF G): In June, Phnom Penh municipal
authorities moved over 40 HIV/AIDS-affected families from Phnom
Penh's Borei Keila neighborhood to a resettlement site located
approximately 15 miles outside of the city, despite the fact that
some of the families were eligible for on-site resettlement in Borei
Keila under a social land concession plan. Catholic NGO Caritas is
planning to upgrade the housing at the resettlement site to
integrate the community with the neighboring village, and a
USAID-funded NGO is providing food and medical support to the
families.

10. (SBU) KONG YU CASE (SEE CAMBODIA HUMAN RIGHTS REPORT): In
April, a Ratanakkiri provincial court prosecutor dismissed both
criminal complaints related to an ongoing land dispute between Jarai
ethnic minority villagers and Keat Kolney, sister of Minister of
Economy and Finance Keat Chhon. The civil case against Keat Kolney
is currently still open. The village chief had reportedly
threatened to file unspecified charges against them if they did not
drop the civil case. There continue to be reports of Keat Kolney's
company clearing land in the disputed territory, despite an
agreement to halt development while the court case proceeds. USAID
funding supports the community's lawyers.

Forced Evictions Threaten World Bank Program
--------------------------------------------

11. (SBU) The World Bank is currently discussing with the RGC the
potential consequences of forced evictions to the World Bank's
on-going Land Management and Administration Program (LMAP). A
Senior World Bank official told Econoff that while the RGC is
unlikely to agree to a full moratorium on forced evictions, it is
committed to developing a consistent policy on resettlement and
compensation. According to the official, the World Bank is
considering suspending disbursements under the LMAP until a
comprehensive policy with acceptable standards is in place. An
announcement on the status of the LMAP is expected as early as the
end of this week.

USG ENGAGEMENT ON LAND ISSUES
-----------------------------

12. (SBU) Many of Cambodia's donors, including the USG, have engaged
the RGC on land issues. Because the circumstances surrounding
individual land dispute cases are rarely clear-cut, never identical,
and often controversial, however, it is difficult for donors to
intervene in a fashion that promotes broad, general applicability to
specific cases.

13. (SBU) On the diplomatic front, we engage the RGC not only to
resolve the disputes, but also to discuss the fundamental issues
behind land disputes and to stress that secure land tenure is
essential for Cambodia's economic growth and social stability. The
Ambassador and others have raised USG concerns over land issues with
senior RGC civilian and military officials; we have released
statements supporting indigenous community land tenure; and we
signed a joint donor statement publicly calling for a moratorium on
evictions until a clear legal framework is in place with workable
procedures for resettlement and compensation (REF E). On the
development front, the USG provides assistance to human rights and
legal aid NGOs to provide land tenure-related education, legal
representation, and support for community advocacy efforts in land
dispute cases.

COMMENT
-------

14. (SBU) While specific land dispute cases raise important due
process and human rights concerns, the truth at the heart of many of
these cases is that the political posturing of RGC officials, the

PHNOM PENH 00000654 003 OF 003


advocacy agenda of Cambodian civil society, and the interests of
communities to protect their livelihoods are all entwined in an
arena where little legal guidance, and less implementation, exists.
It is thus crucial to view land disputes in the context of the
larger institutional issues they highlight, rather than becoming
bogged down in the details of one or two cases with particular
notoriety or visibility. Through diplomatic and development
channels, our engagement and that of other donors remain essential
to change the dynamic -- and the results -- both now and in the
future.


RODLEY

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