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Understanding land ownership in Cambodia


A view of high rise buildings in Phnom Penh. Photograph: Pha Lina/Phnom Penh Post

Cambodia has had a tumultuous past, and the effects of the Khmer Rouge era and the years of civil war still live on today in many facets of the Kingdom of Cambodia.  One area where the effects of  Year Zero can be still be tangibly experienced is in relation to land ownership.  

During their reign from 1975 to 1979 the Khmer Rouge abolished land ownership and set about destroying all existing land records, a task they managed with conviction, due to the ideological incompatibility of an agrarian society with private land ownership.

After the Khmer Rouge were ousted and semblances of order restored, it took more than a decade for private land ownership to be recognised, and in the intervening period all land was owned by the state.  The first effective signs of change came in 1992 when a Land Law was passed by the national government, which allowed Cambodian nationals to own and transfer land.  Changes continued throughout the 1990s, and private land ownership increased in the larger towns, and especially in Phnom Penh.

In 2001 the government passed a new Land Law which has continued this trend of recognising an individual’s private right to land and property ownership.  The new 2001 Land Law set in place a framework through which individuals can register their land and have their land recognised at the national government level. The situation continues to improve, but the task of registering land in Cambodia is complex and a challenging undertaking, especially when the majority of land ownership documentation has been destroyed or is insufficient.

Out of the ashes has evolved a multi-tiered system, with different land titles existing each with different levels of authority.  The main differences are based upon the level of government with whom your land/property is registered. While the situation is much improved from the position of the early 1990s, Cambodia still does not have a uniform title registration system and is many decades away from achieving this throughout the country.  These are the types of land titles available in Cambodia:

Soft Titles, also referred to as ‘Possessory Titles’, are registered at the level of local government. ‘Soft Titles’ are registered at the local Sangkat (council) or district level only and will not have been registered at the National Government level. The land is technically considered to be held only under ‘possession’ as opposed to ‘ownership status’.

Soft titles are the most common title in existence in Cambodia and there are a number of reasons for this.  Firstly, there is not an administration capable of registering every piece of land under ‘Hard Title’ (at the national level).  

Secondly, to register land at the national level, the prospective owner is required to possess documentation, and many landowners do not have sufficient documentation to meet the requirement for hard title land registration.  

Thirdly, administration at the national level takes time, a delay which slows proceedings; fourthly, registering land at the national level incurs a variety of costs above registering land at the local level and; lastly, land registered at the national level becomes subject to a 4 per cent land transaction cost, which many landlords wish to avoid when transferring their land to a new owner.  For all these reasons, soft titles have their place in Cambodia, especially outside Phnom Penh, where there are fewer international investors, who demand hard titles registered with the highest authority.

A hard title is an ownership certificate which is issued by the Cadastral Office who form part of the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, and also coordinate with City Hall for land within Phnom Penh.  These titles are recognised at the national ministerial level as well as at the Sangkat and district level. This is the most secureform of ownership, as registration should be the only evidence required to prove ownership.

Standing for Land Management and Administration Project , LMAP is the third land title available in Cambodia.  The initiative was launched in 2002 with the help of the World Bank and the German, Finnish and Canadian governments.  The project was designed to help implement a systematic registration system and is to assist the government in improving land tenure.



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