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Border narrative challenged

A group of Cambodian farmers harvest a rice crop in Kampot province last year.
A group of Cambodian farmers harvest a rice crop in Kampot province last year. Pha Lina

Border narrative challenged

Vietnamese migrants illegally renting farmland on the Cambodian side of the international border are not simply foreign land grabbers, and in fact commonly fall victim to exploitation by Cambodian landlords and authorities, according to a new report.

The authors of the study, published in the Journal of Peasant Studies this week, said they visited Srai Saa village in Kampot province and Phnom Tmae village in Takeo expecting to “see foreigners seizing control of the borderlands and dispossessing local villagers”.

“Instead, we found a much more complex situation, in which Cambodian landlords continued to wield significant power over the migrant Vietnamese whom they had recruited to farm the land,” the report says.

Through interviews with migrants, officials and others surrounding the rice and shrimp farms, the authors found that the informal and often verbal contracts made by the Vietnamese people – paired with their illegal status in the country – meant they could be dispossessed at a moment’s notice. Their precarious situations often compelled them to hand over sizable portions of their profits to the landlords, or to the authorities.

“The village chief in Takeo explained their vulnerability succinctly: ‘If the Khmer landholders want to take the land back, the Vietnamese won’t do anything. Where would they go to complain? They’re in Cambodia’,” the report reads.

The report did mention that local Cambodian farmers who are neither landholders nor among the elite could be disenfranchised by the banned – yet widespread – practice of renting borderland to Vietnamese. It said Cambodians were often excluded as tenants and rarely hired as labourers – after losing access to other land at the hand of Cambodian elites.

The report said that although migrant Vietnamese had “greater capital, farming knowledge and access to markets than local Khmer farmers . . . their uncertain legal status also renders them vulnerable to threats of deportation”.

The study painted a stark contrast to the prevailing narrative centred on aggressive Vietnamese encroachment pedalled by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party. That perception led to a ban on renting border land to Vietnamese, which the report said was unlikely to stem the flow of migrants, who were driven out by high land prices in Vietnam.

CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said the leasing of border land was continuing despite the ban, and it was vital to prevent border encroachment and illegal immigration. “The ban is not effective; there is some corruption, the implementation is not effective, and there is a lack of political will,” Sovann said.

“Anybody who says this is an anti-Vietnamese sentiment should read Cambodian history; we were the victims of Vietnam’s land encroachment. We do not want to suffer again, and we want to protect the land we still have.”
Cambodia Center for Human Rights director Chak Sopheap said undocumented Vietnamese migrants were vulnerable to “populist rhetoric that stokes discrimination”.

“Naturally, all states have the right to control who enters their territory. However, without transparent and predictable immigration rules, properly implemented, undocumented migrants will remain vulnerable to exploitation,” Sopheap said.

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