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EU stands passively by as Cambodia’s oligarchs engage in blatant, shameful land grab

Something extremely ugly is being carried out almost daily in the land of the Khmer. More that half a million Cambodians have been affected by land conflicts since 2000. The aftermath of Pol pot’s murderous regime still haunts the country, writes chief political correspondent Tim McNamara.

Two actions, or rather non-interventions by the EU compound the problems faced by the large majority of Cambodians. Firstly, the poverty of the many is systematically compounded by the greed of the few at the highest political and economic levels of the state in allowing them to seize and exploit land for themselves on the flimsiest of bases.

Secondly, the EU’s ‘Everything But Arms (EBA) free trade agreement with Cambodia is allowing the Oligarchs’ corporations to exploit their land holdings to grow cash crops such as sugar and rubber and export them to the EU duty free. Thereby filling the pockets of a few rich Cambodians (as well as foreign partners, many of whom are Thai).

International donors seem to play a deliberate overtly passive role in the internal affairs  of Cambodia. No matter that over half of Cambodia’s gross domestic product is made up by development aid from foreign donors, such as the EU, USA and others.

The EU, especially its delegation in Phnom Penh, claims to discuss land rights concerns with the Cambodian government on a regular basis. it also claims to listen and take note of  issues raised by those directly affected by land grabs.

In 2010, the EU Charge d’Affairs in Cambodia, Rafael Dochao Moreno, dismissed any connection between the EBA initiative and human rights violations in the country, telling Radio Australia News: “It’s like accusing for instance, where there’s a drunk driver killing a pedestrian, you accuse the manufacturers of cars of this killing … There is a relation, because the car has killed a person, but it is not a direct responsibility of someone that is manufacturing cars… ”

He went on “What we cannot do at a European Union level is to say, ‘Well, we are going to stop Everything But Arms, that is benefiting the whole of Cambodia because in a specific area in a land economic concession … an abuse has been committed with the people in that area’. This is obfuscation on a grand scale.”

Firstly the real comparison is the EU is selling a car with no controls; it is the defence of the drug dealer. Secondly, the EU can suspend the EBA as it pertains to particular products such as sugar and/or rubber. These commodities are the main economic driver behind the land grabs.

Interestingly, on 24 March of this year the European Commission under the EBA banned all fish imports from Cambodia, punishing the country for failing to show genuine commitment to halting illegal fishing. It appears that human rights don’t seem to attract the same level of concern.

A European Commission spokesperson very recently said: “Our dialogue with the Cambodian authorities, straightforward and transparent, has considerably intensified in the last two years. For example, during the EU’s Commissioner for trade, Karek De Gucht visit to Cambodia on March 2014, he stressed the need for the Cambodian authorities to bring tangible and satisfactory results on the land-grabbing issue, to avoid any negative impact on trade relations between the EU and Cambodia”.

It is claimed that the Cambodian government has recently set up a working group on Economic Land Concessions (ELCs) which liaises closely with all interested parties (including the EU’s delegation). The Commission spokesperson said “the establishment of a high-level working group on ELCs for sugar production at the beginning of the year is a good case in point: the Government at its highest level is resolute in finding a solution for the affected families.”

Prime Minister Hun Sen regularly rails against ‘foreign interference’ in cambodia’s internal affairs. Therefore consultations within the working group on ELCs could actually be characterised as having as much impact as raising concerns about obesity with Ronald MacDonald or Colonel Saunders.

With most title deeds destroyed due to the particular Stalinist nature of the Khmer Rouge regime, present-day Cambodian oligarchs are using this supposed legal vacuum to appropriate land using the most tenuous legal claims as well as outright appropriation without any legal basis.

Even if peasant villagers can prove they have lived on previously uncontested land for over five years, this law is almost always ignored by the local courts if a large corporation claims it has legal title.

For example, on August 13, a peaceful march to the capital Phnom Penh by villagers from Lor Peang community – protesting against a land grab – was brutally disrupted by local police and military police. The dispute between the villagers and the politically-connected firm KDC International appears to be being settled by state-sanctioned brutality.

KDC International is a company owned by Chea Keng, the wife of Suy Sem, the Minister of Industry, Mines and Energy. Suy Sem is a longstanding friend of the Prime Minister, Hun Sen. Mr Hun Sen has been de facto Prime Minister for an uninterrupted 19 years. Although a nominal democracy, Cambodia, currently, has all the hallmarks of a one party state.

The campaigning organisation Global Witness claim that “Since 2008 ……. A sudden wave of land grabbing has gripped the country, with 2.6 million hectares – equivalent to 76 percent of Cambodia’s arable land – transferred largely from small-scale farmers to agricultural companies.” This backed up by LICADHO, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights.

What is happening in Cambodia is utterly shameful. As oligarchs grow rich, 70 per cent of the Khmer people have no access to any basic utilities whatsoever. The passivity of international donors is no longer acceptable. The European Union has a moral responsibility to lead the international community in openly condemning the Government of  Prime Minister Hun Sen and its corrupting oligarchs.

Suspending the imports of sugar and rubber from Cambodia under the EBA arrangement should be the first step that the EU should take until the blatant abuse of human rights is halted. The EU buyers of commercial sugar imports from Cambodia should also examine their consciences.

Tim McNamara is head of the Peercourt consultancy firm. He was previously political editor at the European Commission.


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