After 28 years in the capital, eating like “a king” and enjoying the perks one receives as the son of high-ranking CPP officials, Sophal’s* move to the countryside was as jarring as it was eye-opening.
Until the day in June when he traded his designer threads for a pair of military fatigues and joined the ranks of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s elite student land-titling volunteers, the furore over land grabbing that had engulfed the rest of his country had gone largely unnoticed by the young man.
As one of roughly 2,000 student volunteers deployed by the premier as part of an ambitious titling scheme aimed at addressing Cambodia’s land-grabbing epidemic, Sophal slowly began gaining an appreciation of the extreme hardships rural villagers are exposed to through land grabbing.
But in Kampong Speu’s Thpong district, where Sophal works, the biggest problem for the volunteers isn’t their fledgling surveying skills or dealing with the finer points of village diplomacy, but rather the politics behind the most serious dispute in the area, one that leads all the way to the Cambodian Senate.
The so-called king of Koh Kong, ruling-party senator Ly Yong Phat, was granted a 9,000-hectare concession in Thpong’s Omlaing commune in 2010 that has led to recurring battles with about 2,000 affected families. His wife holds an adjacent 10,000-hectare concession.
Omlaing fell to the opposition Sam Rainsy Party in this year’s commune elections, with a 28-year-old – whose home was destroyed to make way for Yong Phat’s sugar plantation – winning the position of commune chief.
Land disputes have been entrenched in the Cambodian landscape for a generation, but it was in 2012 – a year marked by a startling upswing in the severity of violence used by companies and authorities – when something like a tipping point was finally reached.
With elections looming and increasingly sophisticated public-awareness campaigns launched by those being evicted from their land, the government finally began to move to enact broad-reaching policies that might address the potential powder keg.
From the very beginning of the year, when soldiers moonlighting as security guards for the firm TTY shot villagers protesting the appropriation of their land, the barbaric use of violence against people seeking the simple right to own land has reared its ugly head again and again.
Perhaps the most appalling example was the shooting of 14-year-old Heng Chanta by government forces – when they descended on her small village in Kratie province in May.
The government said the huge force, armed with machine guns and a helicopter, was cracking down on a secessionist movement, but villagers, land monitors, rights groups and foreign governments have disputed that account. Many have called the claim a thinly veiled cover to evict unarmed villagers embroiled in a long-standing land dispute with a rubber concessionaire.
Despite the huge, ongoing outcry over the incident, the government has refused to investigate Heng Chanta’s death or budge on its position. Instead, the so-called secession was used as justification to seek the subsequent arrests of at least half a dozen people.
Mam Sonando, owner of the independent radio station Beehive, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for his role in stoking the “separatist movement”. Senior Adhoc investigator Chan Soveth faces questioning today on charges of aiding one of the perpetrators of the secession.
The charges against both men have been widely derided as politically motivated.
In the capital, long-running land disputes at Borei Keila and Boeung Kak lake took violent — and, at times, puzzling — twists and turns as authorities opted for heavy-handed approaches to those who defied orders.
Hundreds of Borei Keila residents who refused a revised compensation package that would have condemned them to tents on the outskirts of the city – rather than long-promised new apartments – were forcibly evicted from their homes on January 3.
Development firm Phan Imex, backed by municipal forces, demolished the homes of about 300 families, sparking violent clashes between evictees and police that ended in arrests – and, for some villagers, weeks in Prey Sar prison.
As evictees took up residence under staircases at Borei Keila, more than 20 women and children who protested the mass eviction were detained in the city eight days later and locked up in the Prey Speu social affairs centre, where they spent a week before climbing the walls and fleeing to freedom in tuk-tuks.
*Name has been changed to protect anonymity
Mong Touch, 22, lies bleeding on the ground after being shot in January by guards employed by the TTY Co Ltd in Kratie province. Four villagers were shot by guards after a group of protesters gathered in an attempt to prevent the company bulldozing their crops. Photograph supplied
Across the city, at the now filled-in Boeung Kak lake, the Borei Keila women’s partners-in-protest spent months railing against the municipal authority’s unwillingness to demarcate 12.44 hectares of land promised by Hun Sen in August last year.
In a move condemned by the international community as unjust and illegal, authorities arrested 13 Boeung Kak women during a protest on May 22, convicting them two days later after a three-hour trial and sentencing them to two and a half years for encroaching on public property and disputing authority.
Thirty-three days later – after much criticism from within the Kingdom and overseas – the Court of Appeal reduced the women’s sentences but upheld their convictions, allowing them to walk free.
Thoughts that either dispute would simmer by year’s end, however, evaporated with the arrests of Boeung Kak lake activists Yorm Bopha, 29, and Tim Sakmony, a 65-year-old grandmother from Borei Keila, within 24 hours of each other in early September, both on charges the government says are unrelated to their frequent protesting.
The outcome of their trial is sure to shape the direction of the two disputes in 2013.
From a land perspective, the Boeung Kak and Kratie cases represented a dire low amid an epidemic of land grabbing and insecure tenure.
A measure of recognition over how bad things had become was an announcement in early May that Hun Sen would enact a moratorium on new economic land concessions (though the supporting edict included a heavily criticised clause allowing the approval of deals already in negotiation). That was followed, just weeks later, by the premier’s land-titling scheme, which has already resulted in thousands of provisional titles being handed out across the country.
Exactly what spurred Hun Sen to take action remains unclear. Some political observers suggest that, ahead of next year’s elections, the CPP were unnerved by the June 3 commune vote, which delivered them an increased margin of victory but also saw just 60 per cent of Cambodians head to the ballot as well as some losses in areas facing long-standing land disputes.
Others speculate that constant comparisons to Myanmar and talk of the Arab Spring were deeply irritating to a prime minister who saw an opportunity to deflect criticism.
It’s even possible that the premier is getting tired of surprises from some of his party’s own oknhas and ayadoms. Among those whose names are frequently linked to disputes are a number of senior ruling-party senators or highly connected individuals within the CPP.
Whatever provided the trigger for the premier to institute his new land policies, and however diligently this complex initiative is implemented, it remains indisputable that this is one of the most significant political developments in Cambodia since the fall of the Khmer Rouge.
For close to a decade, the Finnish organisation Finmap has quietly been helping villagers across the country register existing claims through their Land Administration Sub Sector Program and resolved more that 1.5 million titles. But never has anyone tackled the disputed areas.
Rights groups have questioned why the prime minister’s land-titling program has appeared to avoid areas of big disputes, but have remained reluctant to evaluate the success of the scheme, already in its eighth month, until it is complete.
For Adhoc, Cambodia’s oldest rights group and an organisation that focuses heavily on the issue of land grabbing, the first concern is that the volunteers and their overseers are skirting areas where there are disputes or where informal settlements have been established. The premier has been adamant that students would not touch disputed areas and it is unclear when the local authorities and cadastral officials overseeing the project will tackle the most sensitive areas.
“One concern is that the people most in need of land titles won’t receive them, because they live in conflicted areas or informal settlements, and this scheme does not deal with these,” Nicolas Agostini, a land expert at Adhoc, says.
For Sophal, who is quickly gaining an education on the complex issue of land disputes, hope and trepidation is shared in equal measure.
“I think the companies should not come to take over villagers’ land, because their land is far from the town. Their livelihood depends on that farm land and paddy land,” he said. “That’s why we always see them come to protest.”
To contact the reporters on this story: May Titthara at [email protected]
David Boyle at [email protected]
With assistance from Shane Worrell