AFTER months of anticipation, a new land law is now getting ready to leave the drawing board. According to government lawyer and Asian Development Bank consultant Heng Vong Bunchhat, all the more than 200 articles in the law have now been written and need only to be reviewed.
Bunchhat predicts that a draft of the long-awaited law will be submitted for approval by the Council of Ministers within a month. From there it is hoped to get a swift passage through other legislative channels.
But what's more, the new draft law is the result of a close cooperation between the government and the local NGO community. Numerous consultations between ministries and organizations familiar with land right issues have created a draft law that is expected to satisfy all parties in the discussions.
At the same time, it has set a precedent for incorporating the advice and knowledge of non-governmental bodies in the future drawing of major legislation.
"In some matters it is good to work together with organizations. They have contact with the small people and know their concerns," says Bunchhat, who has been the government's main legal expert in drafting the law.
Bunchhat mentions the special customs and needs of hill tribe people as an issue where advice from the NGOs has been valuable.
"But for the land law we did not only have to deal with social aspects. There were also economic aspects to consider," he says.
While the new land law cannot solve all land right disputes overnight like a magic wand, it will be an important tool in tackling an issue that has rapidly grown to overshadow most other problems in Cambodia: who has the right to own or occupy what land.
In front of the National Assembly, demonstrations by unhappy, landless villagers seem to have become a weekly feature. Disputes over ownership occur on daily. And 4.5 million people are waiting to have their land applications processed by the Land Title Department. Some of them have been waiting for years.
A major difference between the new draft and the existing legislation from 1992 is the sociological foundation that the law is based on. The old law is written for a society heavily influenced by communist collectivism. The new one has to cater for a free market economy where real estate has become an important commercial factor.
Therefore, many articles in the draft law are assigned to define what land is national or public property and what plots and buildings can be traded on the private real estate market.
This will, for instance, prevent pagodas from being sold to businesses or private buyers. In recent years some pagodas have sold adjoining plots to industrial companies - with the consequence that noisy, modern factories occasionally are jammed up against sacred, ancient stupas.
Also, the new land law will spell out a different set of rules for how to claim ownership of a plot of land. Today, the occupant either has to present an official title or prove that he/she has lived on the land for five years.
The last option requires a letter from the commune chief attesting the occupancy. And this has often been a target for blackmail and other abuses of power.
"My idea is to reduce the required period of occupancy to two years. We also want to abolish the letter from the commune chief," says Bunchhat.
Many flaws and deficiencies in the existing legislature - or in the first draft land law completed in January 1998 - has been detected and pointed out by a group of local and international organizations.
The NGO/IO Land Law Working Group, which comprises legal and human rights organizations, was set up a year ago on the initiative of the Cambodian Bar Association. The goal of the group was to influence the work with a future land law.
Earlier this year the working group sent out its own proposal for a draft land law. It has repeatedly approached both the government and donor countries with concerns and suggestions. And the efforts of the group appear to have borne fruit. Since the spring, an almost formalized co-operation has developed between the working group and the government. The working group continuously revised its land law proposal and submitted it to the govern-ment's consultants and legal experts, who in turn took the group's recommendations into account.
"During a series of meetings we have discussed the land right issues with [Cabinet Minister] Sok An, the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Land Management and Urban Planning. Also we have continued to write to the government to support our suggestions," explains Ang Eng Thong, who as President of the Bar Association also heads the working group.
The close cooperation between Bunchhat and the NGO working group means that the final draft law will be sent to the organization for last-minute comments before it is submitted to the Council of Ministers. However, both Thong and Bunchhat stress that a new land law does not automatically solve all land disputes. The problem still remains of corrupt judges who for a satisfactory sum will rule contrary to the guidelines of the law.
Also, there are false land titles circulating - often for the same plot of land. And Cambodia still has no central land registry, so original documents are kept by people in their homes.
"Many ordinary people are not careful with their documents. They keep them in inappropriate places, let them be destroyed by rain or lose them. And then they are again left without proof of their land ownership," Bunchhat says.
For Thong, the main obstacle is whether the government is prepared to enforce the law.
"The government has never before punished people who took land from others. I don't think they will now be strong, and find and punish the perpetrators," he says. "In theory the words of the law are beautiful. In practice it may be more impossible."