On March 15 the National Authority for Resolving Land Disputes (NARLD) was established
by Royal Decree, adding a new layer to the many committees and commissions all supposed
to ease Cambodia's increasingly common conflicts over land.
But legal experts have expressed concern that the NARLD will be yet another toothless
layer of bureaucracy that will do nothing to assist the ever-increasing number of
poor Cambodians who are losing their land, often to a powerful, well-connected elite.
"The government creates so many mechanisms but they do not work properly,"
said Noun Sokchea, Attorney-at-Law for the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC).
"Despite all the committees, land disputes have increased and intensified."
The conflicts over land have reached epidemic proportions, said Sara Colm, senior
researcher at Human Right's Watch.
"These evictions are causing a humanitarian crisis," she said. "Land
grabbing and forced evictions of poor communities are out of control."
In the late 1990s a National Committee, and an Interministerial Committee led by
the Ministry of Finance, were established to resolve land disputes. The inability
of both of these bodies to ease the mounting land crisis led to the creation in 2002
of the Cadastral Commission, which has over the last four years proved itself to
be equally ineffective at resolving major land disputes.
"The Cadastral Commission does not work," said Vannsin, Program Officer
for Oxfam Great Britain Livelihood program. "It works for disputes between neighbors,
but not big evictions. So recently, they set up this new political initiative [the
NARLD] which so far has not been successful."
The NARLD is not yet fully operational, but a July 14 government sub-decree gave
it greater powers than any previous dispute resolution bodies, said Eng Chhai Eang,
Sam Rainsy parliamentarian and vice president of the NARLD.
"The subdecree provides full rights to the NARLD," he said. "We can
adjudicate cases and act like the courts; we have the right to decide on cases."
A major flaw of the Cadastral Commission is its inability to operate independently
from the government.
"The commission is not independent - the people who work in the Cadastral Commission
are subject to pressure from high ranking and powerful individuals," said Eang
Sopheak, Attorney-At-Law for CLEC.
Fear of City Hall
"In the current cases of evictions in Phnom Penh, when it is often a situation
of the community versus City Hall, the Cadastral Commission will hesitate to take
on the case out of fear of City Hall."
But when the NARLD begins to operate - after the National Assembly has approved a
draft law concerning its role - it will operate independently, Eang said.
"I think all the people in the NARLD have the will to resolve land disputes;
external influence will not be a problem," he said.
The membership of the NARLD is almost identical to the Cadastral Commission, but
includes some opposition parliamentarians. It will be more willing to challenge the
current norms and practices governing land dispute resolution and evictions than
the Cadastral Commission has been, Eang said.
"I do not support the City Hall policy of evicting people to the outskirts of
the city," he said. "Authorities must understand that cities are not just
for rich people - in every country in the would you have poor people living in cities
too - you have to make space for them."
But the NARLD's mandate from the National Assembly is likely to arrive too late for
the thousands currently being evicted from land near the Tonle Bassac.
Experts say secretive deals between the government and private companies, in which
centrally located public lands such as those along the Tonle Bassac are exchanged
for plots on the outskirts of the city, have become pervasive.
"The government is allowing a handful of powerful and well-connected individuals
to line their pockets while trampling on the human rights of thousands of poor people,"
Colm said. "This is rule by the powerful, not rule by law."
By secretively "swapping" rather than transparently selling land, the officials
and companies involved are not only bypassing the requirements of international law,
but also managing to avoid paying tax to the state, Eang said.
"People are avoiding paying tax on their land as they claim not to buy and sell
but to 'transfer' it," he said. "If we could tax the land it would get
more money into the state budget; with no taxation system the rich and powerful are
able to secretively grab state or poor people's land and neither the state nor country
as a whole benefit."
Land swaps are typically justified in the name of "development." But the
concept of "development" has taken on a very different meaning in Cambodia
from that which it has internationally, Eang said.
"Right now poor people are scared of the word 'development'," he said.
"It seems that it is only for the rich, not for them."
Filling their pockets
According to the Human Rights guidelines on development-based displacement, adopted
by the United Nations Expert Seminar on the Practice of Forced Evictions held in
Geneva in 1997, all citizens must have active, free and meaningful participation
in the development of their country with the benefits of development being shared
by all. But in Cambodia, this is not the case.
"It is obvious that close 'friendship' or patronage between the government and
business community exists," said Miwa Igawa, Country Programme for Forum Asia.
"In this sense the government views development as a means to continue filling
their pockets with money."
The recent spate of land trades and grabs for "development" purposes are
largely the result of wealthy and powerful land speculators aiming to make a quick
profit on the resale of land, Vannsin said.
"People have a lot of land, but they don't develop it, they just fence it in,"
he said. "They just keep it for speculation, waiting until an investor will
With vast swaths of Cambodia's countryside gradually being fenced off, landlessness
is an increasingly pressing issue, which some experts believe has the potential to
create mass social unrest.
"Landlessness is increasing at a rate of 2 percent per year. In 2004 between
12 and 15 percent of the population were landless; now that figure could be nearer
20 percent," said Vannsin. "This could lead to social movements."
The ineffective functioning of the official bodies for land dispute resolution has
resulted in an interesting melding of techniques in eviction protests. From the careful
use of legal proceedings, to direct appeals to Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife
"First, they use the human rights approach - they file complaints to NGOs and
legal aid organizations," said Vannsin. "Then they appeal directly to Hun
Sen - they try every avenue possible."
In Cambodia people are still reluctant to protest their maltreatment during land
disputes, Vannsin said.
"There is a culture of fear - it is still here," he said. "People
are afraid, they talk in whispers. They saw what happened to Chea Vichea, they saw
what happened in Phnom Penh in July 1997, and there are other cases that always happen
- people know about them."
But unless Cambodian people can move beyond this fear, land grabs, swaps and forced
evictions will continue, he said.
"If people keep quiet, who will help them? If they keep quiet the government
will assume that all is ok. Cambodia has to overcome this fear."