If there was any doubt about the present warmth in the often tense relations between the Cambodian and Thai militaries, a recent meeting between the two army bosses made a point of putting it to rest.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s land-titling scheme announced in June originally included a directive for granting collective property titles to indigenous communities, but this part of the program was scrapped weeks later as it was deemed too costly and time-consuming, documents obtained on Tuesday show.
Since the nationwide titling program was announced on June 14, the government has issued more than 125,000 private land titles to villagers living inside economic land concessions and state forest, while thousands of student volunteers deployed by the Ministry of Land Management continue to measure plots for those without tenure documents.
But according to a directive sent to provincial land management departments and signed by Land Management Minister Im Chhun Lim on July 4, the titling program—commonly referred to as Order 01—was also meant to serve the country’s many ethnic minority groups seeking rare communal land titles.
For “indigenous minority groups registered as ‘communities’ by the Ministry of Interior…the land identification process shall be done in the same working spirit as the one prevailing in the [Ministry of Land Management’s] cadastral department instructions on the implementation of the Royal Government of Cambodia’s Order 01,” the directive states.
“[T]he land shall be registered as collective ownership of the ‘community’ according to the request of its traditional authorities,” it continues.
The document includes instructions on how to issue both primary and hard communal titles, even for indigenous groups in the process of registering with the Ministry of Interior.
A second directive, also signed by Mr. Chhun Lim and dated July 26, however, superseded these orders.
“In order to implement the Royal Government of Cambodia’s Order 01…the chairman of the land policy advisory gives the following instructions relating to the indigenous minorities’ land to the chairmen of all the provincial state land management committees,” it begins.
“The determination of boundaries of all parcels being the collective ownership of indigenous communities…requires a long time, as well as extensive budget spending,” it continues. “Therefore, registration of collective ownership shall be postponed to be implemented later.”
In lieu of instructions for issuing communal titles, the second directive includes a copy of a contract for “indigenous individuals who do not want to be part of an indigenous community and want to live as a private person.” The contract, which must be thumbprinted, also states that any individual who opts for a private title is ineligible to receive the benefits of a communal title.
Land Management Ministry spokesman Beng Hong Socheat Khemro said that he was unable to answer questions related to land.
“I can’t answer related to land because I do not have this information. If it’s about urban planning and construction maybe I can answer,” he said.
Mr. Socheat Khemro referred questions to Sar Sovann, director-general of the ministry’s cadastral department, who could not be reached.
Sek Sophorn, national project coordinator for the International Labor Organization, which is helping ethnic minority groups gain communal titles, said that he was surprised when the government issued the second directive, supplanting the first.
“From the beginning, according to the instructive circular from the government, they required [officials] to measure collective [land] for those indigenous communities with legal identity statuses,” Mr. Sophorn said. “A few days later, they issued another circular saying, ‘Oh, please stop doing that.’”
Sroeuk Chhoeuy, chief of a Banong community living in Mondolkiri province’s Pech Chreada district, said the contract attached to the latter directive has been used by local authorities to trick villagers into accepting private titles.
“We were asked to thumbprint it, claiming we have no rights or benefits to communal anything,” Mr. Chhoeuy said, adding that the more than 100 families he oversees in Bosra commune’s Village 4 are planning to try to give back private titles they received in November and December.
“We want to give back the private titles to authorities,” he said. “We were misinformed by the student volunteers who measured our land…. They told us that we should get private titles first, and that the government would issue communal titles [later] for rotation farmland and ancestral land.”
Em Sopheak, provincial coordinator for the Community Legal Education Center in Mondolkiri, said that the residents of Village 4—who are among hundreds of minority villagers in Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri who recently accepted private titles after long holding out hope for communal ones—held a meeting on January 31 upon realizing the implications of the contract.
“After receiving private titles… they found out that they have no rights to shifting cultivation, forest graveyards or spiritual forests,” Mr. Sopheak said. “With only private titles, the ethnic minorities will lose their identities, traditions and cultures…and become just like Khmer people.”
Communal titles, unlike private ones, are designed to protect the ancestral land of the indigenous groups from outside development, and designate generous areas for rotation farming, forest graveyards and “spirit forests.” But since the country’s Land Law was created in 2001, only three titles have been issued.
Pen Bonnar, senior program officer for rights group Adhoc’s land and natural resources program, said that although he had no knowledge of the Land Management Ministry’s July directives relating to indigenous groups, their content was not surprising.
“It’s more proof that the government has no intention, from the past up until the present, to give out collective titles for indigenous minorities,” Mr. Bonnar said.
“The government’s policy… just legalizes the illegal occupation of state land,” he said. “Of course, the majority of those who cleared and encroached on state forest are not ordinary people, but rich and powerful companies and individuals.”
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