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September 21, 2017

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Cambodia PM's land title plan stirs controversy

By Michelle Fitzpatrick

PHNOM PENH -- Cambodian students have fanned out across the impoverished nation to help grant land titles to villagers in an ambitious but contentious new scheme spearheaded by the prime minister.

When Hun Sen announced his titling plan in June, apparently without first consulting local authorities and communities, it was billed as a way to clamp down on land conflicts, seen as Cambodia's most pressing human rights issue.

But the strongman premier later backtracked, saying the more than 1,600 student volunteers recruited would not be measuring land in disputed areas at all, baffling campaigners who already lamented a lack of detail about the plan.

"For those in non-conflict areas it's very good, but it doesn't address the major problem. People who are most in need of land titles won't receive them," said Nicolas Agostini of local rights group ADHOC.

The university students are now tasked with demarcating 1.8 million hectares (4.4 million acres) of uncontested territory so officials can issue titles to 470,000 families within the next few months.

In the project's first major milestone last month, Hun Sen personally delivered more than 500 property titles to families in Kratie, the same eastern province where security forces shot dead a 14-year-old girl during a land battle with villagers in May, in a case that shocked the nation.

Land ownership is a highly controversial issue in Cambodia, where the communist Khmer Rouge regime banned private property in the late 1970s and many legal documents were lost.

Many observers have welcomed the land tenure security offered by the new scheme, which the premier says will encourage owners to invest in their property and boost the rural economy.

But Agostini said serious questions remained and attempts to silence or sideline independent observers were "not acceptable."

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