Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Civil society groups call for transparency in development projects

Villagers gather to demonstrate in front of police barricades where authorities blocked a road leading to their farmland, which is being cleared to prepare the site for a planned airport in Kandal Stung district, Picture taken on September 12, 2021. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan
Villagers gather to demonstrate in front of police barricades where authorities blocked a road leading to their farmland, which is being cleared to prepare the site for a planned airport in Kandal Stung district, Picture taken on September 12, 2021. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan

Several civil society groups said on Wednesday that grassroots communities lack access to information on significant development projects affecting their communities including economic land concessions, often with a serious impact on people’s livelihoods.

At an online national conference held by the Coalition for Partnership in Democratic Development (CPDD) on Wednesday on the subject of “disclosure and transparency on sub-national administration budget and economic land concession”, the civil society group said that grassroots communities are routinely kept in the dark over commune budgets for development and infrastructure.

Advocacy and Policy Institute director Lam Socheat, who attended the Zoom meeting, said that the lack of access to information negatively impacted community livelihoods, as relevant authorities rarely shared reports or data related to major investments and economic and social land concession projects.

“The right to access information is fundamental to freedom of expression, a human rights-based approach which has an impact on people’s daily livelihoods,” he said.

In addition, he said, authorities at all levels almost never shared Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports for development projects to grassroots communities, who often faced forced evictions or inadequate compensation as a result of these projects.

“If they can’t access information, it means that they don’t have evidence to know why they need this development as well as [the location of] relocation sites, which impacts on their traditions and other fundamental rights,” he said. “[Because of] this lack of information and public participation, people will face more challenges from rights violations and access to justice.”

In June 2012, the government issued a moratorium on economic land concessions and deployed an army of student volunteers to survey and map areas in which land was under dispute with the stated goal of handing significant amounts of private and state-owned land to individuals.

Ministry of Information undersecretary and spokesman Meas Sophorn, who attended the meeting, maintained that Cambodian people have access to a wide range of information through traditional broadcasting as well as social media.

“We have seen many types of information that they can receive at any time and anywhere,” he said. Sophorn added that 80 percent of the population have been using smartphones to access the information that they need to.

“The Information Ministry will continue to strengthen our dissemination of information as we are now seeing our people can access information,” he said.

Sophorn said that the ministry has committed to approving a draft Access to Information (A2I) law by the end of the year, saying that the final discussion with the Ministry of Justice is almost complete. In September,  a number of civil society organizations called on the government to revise the draft law, objecting in particular to an article that says confidential information can be withheld in certain unspecified cases.

The spokesperson argued that grassroots communities are always invited to join local meetings to raise their opinions for community development.

But Khoeut Leakena, a representative of an indigenous minority group in Kampong Thom province, said that this access rarely extended beyond handpicked members of the community.

“At my community, upon having the meeting, they had invited only the village chief and [a few of] its members, and they have never disseminated information to the community,” she said. “We do not know what type of information that the village chief would show to the villagers, including the development budget.”

When asked about communities’ access to information on development projects, Kratie provincial deputy governor Pen Lynath claimed that relevant authorities and companies always disseminated information regarding new projects.

“They always did research in the field and consulted with local villagers related to environmental impact assessment,” he said.

However, San Chey, executive director of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability, told CamboJA that most people only know the information that meets their personal needs rather than broader information in the public interest.

“If people do not get information, it is detrimental to other benefits, such as losing power and spending a lot of money,” he said.

He said that without having reliable access to public interest information, people could be misled into paying unnecessary fees for ostensibly free administrative services.

Tha Kunthea, whose family has been affected by a land dispute with a Chinese agriculture company in Tbong Khmum province, said that villagers are never told the details of major development projects.

“Never, they had just disseminated to us to stop us protesting, because that land belongs to the company,” she said. Kunthea told CamboJA she had lost about three hectares of land. Now, she has no land for farming.

“The village chief was the seller, and the landowner and the non-landlord received equal compensation, and no one came to tell the matter clearly,” she said.

Last year, villagers of Sre Paing and Bosnor villagers in Dambe district, Tboung Khmum province travelled to Phnom Penh in August to submit petitions at the ministries of Justice, Interior and Land Management seeking a resolution over a 1,200 hectare area that is claimed by both them and the Chinese-owned Harmony Investment. (Additional reporting by Chea Sokny)