Indigenous peoples fighting economic land concessions (ELCs) in Cambodia are more likely to get results with violent protest than lodging their complaints through legitimate channels, a controversial study published this month argues.
The paper, published by Young Sokphea in the Asian Journal of Social Science, concludes that “Non-institutional [violent] tactics”, including destroying company equipment, “tend to be more effective than the institutional tactics”.
Sokphea takes as a case study Bousraa commune in Mondulkiri province, where in late 2007, an ELC was granted to a Franco-Cambodian company to establish a rubber plantation, a case he says was mirrored by others that sprung up nationwide. Though he does not name the company, the study appears to refer to that of agri-giant Socfin.
While clearing the land, the company allegedly destroyed forests that were not only vital to the livelihoods of the indigenous Phnong, but also sacred to their animist beliefs.
In December 2008, according to village representatives who spoke to Sokphea for his study, having petitioned local authorities extensively to no avail, 500 “outraged” indigenous people “marched with sticks, axes, bottles of gasoline, lighters, knives, etc. from the commune office to the concession areas”.
There they reportedly “fiercely incinerated” three bulldozers that had been clearing sacred forests and the villagers’ farmland.
Sokphea’s paper argues that later concessions granted by both Cambodia’s government and the rubber company to the Phnong – including payouts and land swaps – alongside minimal judicial reprisals against the violent protests, are proof that “non-institutional”, that is, illegal, protests yield better results for those aggrieved by ELCs. Bousraa’s results, he argues, were replicated elsewhere.
However, even those who advocate for villagers’ rights said yesterday they would not endorse the findings. Eang Vuthy, of rights NGO Equitable Cambodia, said “we don’t see violence with positive outcomes”.
“You see the capital mass protests, you see what happens; people got beaten and people were arrested. That was the outcome,” he said, adding that the the findings “don’t really benefit the people that already suffered from the ELCs”.
One individual with extensive experience resolving land disputes involving indigenous persons, said on condition of anonymity that if Sokphea’s conclusions were indeed correct, it would “be a sad state of affairs . . . because that would mean the non-violent mechanisms have failed”.