Prime Minister Hun Sen has ordered that the pertinent ministries and local authorities take action to prevent forest encroachment and land grabs, saying that these activities always increased during the campaign period and the day of elections.

He issued the instructions while presiding over the June 6 formal inauguration of a new facility of Royal Academy for Justice of Cambodia and graduation ceremony of student judges, clerks, bailiffs and notaries in the capital’s Chroy Changvar district.

“As soon as the campaign season arrives, there is a jump in land grabs and encroachments on state land. I am aware that some forest areas in Pursat province have been cleared, and I have also been informed of land grabs in some other parts of the Kingdom. If we take action, some people will attempt to use photographs of these crimes against us in the election,” he explained.

“I order these activities be put to an abrupt stop, regardless of who is committing them, and whether they are rich or poor. This is state land. The forests belong to the nation and cannot be logged arbitrarily. The government is obliged to protect order, and defend our natural resources and forests,” he said.

He added that whenever such crimes were cracked down on, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) was accused of unjustly governing the country.

“We realise who is behind these accusations, but also accept that sometimes, some powerful people hired people to log the forests and they used the names of those hired loggers as a shield. I have also heard that when the state makes concessions and grants plots of land to people, it is sometimes the wealthy who receive the land,” he said.

“This cannot be allowed to happen. If officials are involved in these matters, please don’t blame me. I will not allow anyone who conducts themself in this manner to remain in the state employment framework, whether the police, military or any other institution. This includes unscrupulous court officials,” he added.

On the night of June 5, Hun Sen also sent an audio instruction to the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and all provincial governors, ordering them to immediately focus on this important work.

“[We] must not pamper ill-intentioned people to protect votes. It is necessary for us to protect the Kingdom’s natural resources and social order. The Cambodian government and the CPP do not need the votes of those who destroy national resources, or occupy state land or the property of other Cambodians,” he said.

Heng Kimhong, research and advocacy programme manager at the Cambodian Youth Network (CYN), said he welcomed the prime minister’s orders

He requested that administrative measures be taken against any local officials who allowed opportunists to log forests or occupy state land, warning that failure to do so could lead to the depletion of the Kingdom’s precious natural resources.

“On behalf of the CYN, I ask that all of the conservation laws that have been adopted since 2002 be stringently enforced. If sub-national officials don’t pay close attention to this matter, it will strongly affect people’s confidence in the rule of law in Cambodia,” he added.

Agriculture ministry spokeswoman Im Rachna said that those who think they can use the election as an opportunity to secretly commit forest crimes or grab land will be punished to the fullest extent of the law. This includes those who order the offending.

Environment ministry spokesman Neth Pheaktra said briefly on June 6 that he had no comment, but that the ministry would follow the prime minister’s orders.

Pursat provincial deputy governor Hiem Khuon explained that the provincial administration convened a June 5 meeting with the provincial police command to plan operations against land grabs and forest crimes in the province. He said the authorities were yet to identify any of the offenders.

“We have not yet identified them because we have not yet inspected the locations of the alleged crimes, but we have issued instructions to our officers. Action will be taken very soon,” he added.

He believed that most of the offenders are not residents of the province but have migrated from elsewhere, usually at the behest of brokers.