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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The poor still battle for land rights

The poor still battle for land rights

They once lived in poverty along the brutal road to Poipet. In 1997, the Ou Chrov district governor offered the 218 families a plot of land near the Thai border. They removed some mines, cultivated crops and built a community they call Kbal Spean, Group 55. They proudly clutch family books with their official addresses. The village was their first taste of normal life after the war.

But then the glittering Thai casinos were built. Bulldozers followed, and on April 24, 2002, government officials again forced the people off their land. After enduring a rainy season in makeshift huts, villagers returned just before the election on July 17 and threatened violence if they were forced to move.

That is their account.

The other, from district officials, is that the families are simply land speculators. Without permission, the squatters cleared the land and illegally built houses. They were not issued land titles. The district offered them other land in the province, but they refused to move. The officials claim village representatives want one million baht ($25,000) to sell the land. Two courts have already ruled against the villagers and the authorities insist they have to leave.

The two sides are now locked in a bitter standoff.

"We will continue filing complaints," says Chey So Phata, 51, a resident of the village. "Whether we are alive or dead, we will stay on the land."

The case of Kbal Spean is symptomatic of the land disputes across the country.

"It's a typical case, and a terrible one," says George Cooper, a consultant with Legal Aid of Cambodia (LAC), an NGO. "The people who get kicked out are the poorest people and the most vulnerable."

The problem would seem intractable even to the best court systems in the world. Among the issues are that land cases deal as much in hearsay and bribes as evidence. Land titles, if they even exist, may include several official owners.

In addition, property rights are vague, with transactions frequently conducted illegally. Conflicts with military and government officials routinely pit the very poor against the most powerful. The country has just a handful of lawyers, and most people cannot afford to hire one.

The government says it is trying to sort out legitimate land rights, but critics say that officials are often the ones breaking the law. A battalion of NGOs has tried to ensure that citizens' rights are protected during the process.

With the passage of the 2001 Land Law, many saw hope for the 200,000 people still mired in land disputes. Many more are landless. A 2000 study by Oxfam GB found more than 12 percent of the population was landless and predicted a "steep increase" in the future.

But the new law has not yet reined in the chaos over land disputes. The cases still invite corruption and confusion. The issue is now in the midst of its biggest change since the Ministry of Land Management (MLM) was established 1999, say ministry staff.

The 2001 Land Law gave thousands of landless people a definitive right to claim land. When the law was passed two years ago, those living on land without a title could apply for ownership once they had possessed the site for five years.

It also launched the new land registration system. All titles, in order to be legal, must be registered with the MLM. The system, modeled after the Australian title structure, should eliminate confusion about land claims through a central database detailing land boundaries and ownership.

The law also established the Cadastral Commission-a government body to resolve land conflicts outside the judicial system-for those without land titles. Khiev Sokha, a legal advisor at MLM, says the body handled 1,380 land dispute cases in 2002. By April it had accepted a further 174.

The legislation fulfilled major priorities of civil society organizations such as permitting communal land titles and offering land concessions to the poor. Pilot projects are planned for later this year.

But implementing the law faces daunting obstacles, says Pat Baars, Asian Development Bank project leader with the land law project at MLM. She says there has never been a complete inventory of state land. Government ministries still disagree about jurisdiction over land, and there are questions about the integrity of the courts.

"The [MLM] is working extraordinarily hard," she says. "It's just a matter of how much time it takes to do these things given a limited amount of resources."

Lim Voan, deputy director of the cadastral and geography department at MLM, says 600,000 land titles were recognized before the Land Law came into effect in 2001. Since then, at least 80,000 new titles have been added to the computerized registry. He says the ministry expects to register at least 1 million by 2008.

But the new system may leave behind many of the poorest.

"It is definitely a case that people who are more savvy, who know the law, can really take advantage of it," says Patricia DeBoer, director of the American Friends Service Committee, an NGO that seeks peaceful resolutions to land disputes. "In rural areas, land ownership has always been based on clearing land. It's never been a formalized system."

LAC acknowledges the legal system, at least in the way courts administer it, often works against those who are poor. The NGO reports that as many as 67 cases out of a caseload of 79 are still pending, some more than five years after the they were opened. The vast majority involve provincial or military officials.

LAC lawyer Ea Sopheap says that bypassing the legal system sometimes offers defendants the best chance.

"The best option may be Hun Sen," says Sopheap. "Poor people don't want to go to court, because they don't trust the court. Most of them lose."

And it remains true that when the courts fail them, the landless appeal directly to the top. In Kbal Spean, where more than 100 families await a resolution, a letter sent to Hun Sen on June 11, 2002 is considered their best hope.

"The court is not fair," says Prom Rin, 41, a village activist. "If the Prime Minister says we should leave this place, we will leave. If he says we should stay, we will stay. We are not the ones who disobey the law."

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