While vast tracts of Cambodia remain concentrated in the hands of a few and accusations of land grabbing remain rife, the broader distribution of land is more than equitable and could never lead to an uprising, the government official in charge of finding solutions to land disputes insisted yesterday.
“Cambodia will not have a land revolution,” Bin Chhin, the national land dispute resolution director, told the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning, and Construction’s annual meeting.
Chhin’s remarks echoed those by Prime Minister Hun Sen in September, when he publicly slammed opposition plans to create tribunals to adjudicate land disputes, saying it was simply cover for a redistribution scheme that could lead to a “class war” as tycoons rose up to defend their interests.
While a moratorium on the granting of new economic land concessions (ELCs) was declared in 2012, rights group Licadho estimates 2.1 million hectares, or one-eighth of Cambodia’s total land mass, lies in the hands of large business interests.
The result has often been the displacement of local farmers and indigenous people, who are left with few meaningful official mechanisms to defend their claim to live and work on the land.
Chhin maintained the Land Dispute Resolution department had met with great success in 2015. Of 637 cases negotiated, 376 were solved, 192 denied, and 69 withdrawn.
But Equitable Cambodia executive director Eang Vuthy described the situation as a crisis and bemoaned the lack of recourse available to those displaced.
“How many land cases happen in this country? It’s huge; it’s a big crisis,” said Vuthy. “Even through the land dispute mechanisms or the courts we don’t see good resolutions. People say we only see rulings in favour of the big companies, and the poor people suffer.”
“Already people are getting more and more angry with private companies. This is not a good sign for the country,” he said, adding that there is a historical precedent of Cambodian farmers who “stood up against land grabbers”.
The process of granting ELCs has been a notoriously opaque one. A 2013 Global Witness report found 20 per cent of all land granted as ELCs was held by just five people, all of them senators from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
Nonetheless, Chhin was adamant yesterday that land distribution in Cambodia is far more equitable than in regional neighbours.
“Our farmers have their own lands. In the Philippines, farmers rent the land since they do not own the land as our farmers do,” said Chhin.
However, president of rights group Adhoc, Thun Saray, said yesterday that while farmers do own their own land, reductions to the size of their property has made their livelihoods unsustainable.
“In the countryside, the farmers need land to survive, to work,” said Saray. “They don’t have enough land.”
Saray conceded Chhin was probably correct that there would be no “land revolution”, but said that’s because those with cause to rebel have been forced abroad in search of work as the land they previously farmed was swallowed by ELCs.
“There will be no land revolution because a lot of people migrate to Thailand, Malaysia,” he said. “The farmers need land to survive, to have enough income for their family.
This is why a lot of people migrate. Now they have the opportunity to migrate, which is why they don’t resist in the country but instead work outside the country to feed their family.”