DISPUTES over property ownership are clogging Cambodia's judicial system, with land
disputes making up as much as a quarter of all cases before the courts.
"It's a big problem," according to Joshua Sondheimer, a legal advisor with
the Cambodian Court Training Project (CCTP). "The volume of land and property
cases is very high. Such cases are usually complicated and take up a lot of the court's
time - meanwhile many prisoners languish in prison while they wait for their case
to come to trial.
While stressing the figure [of 25 per cent] was an educated guess, Sondheimer said
about one third of cases involved the courts trying to establish ownership rights,
while around 20 per cent involved violence resulting from property disputes.
The latter type of dispute was graphically illustrated in late May when two brothers,
unhappy with a court decision on the ownership of a house, killed five officials
who were trying to serve an eviction notice. They also wounded five other people.
The property in question, located at Chraing Chamers about nine kilometers north
of central Phnom Penh, had previously been owned by the mother of the men. She had
assumed ownership after a government decision in the late 1980's which saw the re-establishment
of private property.
However, the wife of one of the brothers had spent twenty damleng of gold to refurbish
the home. After the couple's recent divorce a court decision had awarded the property
to the wife who insisted her erstwhile family be evicted.
Sondheimer and other legal experts said the history of Cambodia has contributed to
a 'real mess' in terms of land ownership. Collectivization of land under the Khmer
Rouge, continued state ownership through the 1980's and the subsequent decision to
privatize property have contributed to the situation.
"But corruption and the abuse of power are also big problems, particularly in
provincial towns where property prices have increased," Sondheimer said.
"In places like Sihanoukville and Kep [we are] aware of powerful people snatching
land and of paying the courts off for favorable decisions concerning land title.
Rebecca Boyce, an Australian lawyer working with the Cambodian Defenders Project
(CDP), said of the 48 civil cases currently being handled by CDP, 28 involved disputes
over property ownership.
"We have a lot of cases where... two equal parties are vying for ownership on
the basis of them both having occupied the land for a number of years. It's very
difficult for the court to come to a decision in such a case," she said.
CDP lawyer Khov Chantha agreed that corruption is also a big factor behind property
"There is one case where [an agent] bribed local officials with $4000 to produce
two titles to one piece of land," he said. "He then sold the land to two
different people giving each a title. Those people are now in court trying to resolve
who actually owns the land."
He added that disputes often became violent when people ignored a court ruling.
Khou Akhra, an investigator with the human rights organization LICADHO, said nearly
twenty per cent of the NGO's case load involved land disputes.
"We deal with some illegal seizures of land, but most are disputes over ownership
and many of them involve claims to property owned before the Khmer Rouge came to
power," she said speaking through an interpreter.
"Most [property] titles have been destroyed so it's very hard to do anything
for people who lost land or property during the Khmer Rouge regime.
"They come back to Cambodia but can not prove ownership - its a cause of great
resentment and a lot of people are very bitter about it," she said.