Law may increase evictions of poor communities, critics say.
THE National Assembly voted Monday to approve the first articles in the controversial draft Law on Expropriations, despite concerns voiced by opposition members and NGOs that the law could be used to dispossess people with legitimate land claims.
The draft, approved by the Council of Ministers earlier this month, sets out procedures for the expropriation of land from property owners for use in public infrastructure works or other projects deemed to be in the “public interest”.
During its session on Monday morning, the Cambodian People’s Party-dominated Assembly voted to approved the first five of the law’s 39 articles without amendments.
Yim Sovann, a lawmaker for the Sam Rainsy Party, said the government should take more time to review the law in order to ensure its fair implementation, given the current wave of land ownership disputes across the country.
“I would like to draw the Assembly’s attention to the fact that when this becomes law it will be very difficult to change,” he said.
“I’m very happy that we will all benefit from development, but I am worried for the 34 percent of people who are living under the poverty line. I am worried for the many thousands of people who lost their land and homes from illegal land seizures.”
He added that the law should apply to all parties equally, and that Article 3 of the draft law, which states that private agreements between the government and foreign investors will supersede the new law, should be extended to encompass all development projects.
But CPP lawmakers said the draft law adheres to its stated purpose, which is to regulate expropriations and the payment of fair compensation for land taken in the public interest.
“We have made this law to defend private ownership. If we enforce this law and it affects [people’s interests], the government has the ability to give compensation for the land that was seized for development,” National Assembly President Heng Samrin said during the session.
Ouk Rabun, secretary of state at the Ministry of Finance, said that when the state needs to develop a plan that affects the public, there must be proper mechanisms in place to guide the expropriations.
“In our country, besides the  Land Law, which officially recognises [land] ownership, we have not had an expropriation and seizure law conforming to Article 44 of the Constitution,” he said.
He added that the law would see people compensated for legal land expropriations with replacement housing.
Key suggestions ignored
Civic groups, however, expressed concerns that without the inclusion of key amendments, the law could worsen the state of land tenure for those most vulnerable to evictions.
In a statement released on Thursday, a coalition of civic groups released a series of 14 recommended changes to the law, one of which – Article 2 – would extend its protections beyond those holding land titles to the thousands of poor Cambodians with “legitimate possession rights” under the 2001 Land Law. Article 2 was passed at Monday’s session without the recommended change.
“We are very concerned about whether the government will incorporate our comments and recommendations into the law,” said Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Centre.
Without the necessary changes, he said, many poor Cambodians will be vulnerable to land seizures described as in the public interest, leading to the proliferation of evictions in Cambodia.
“There are going to be big problems,” he added.
Hang Chhaya, director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, said it was “unfortunate” that civil society recommendations were not taken into account by the Assembly.
“The way such laws have been passed and debated previously has been very consistent: There has been no debate, and no comments have been taken into consideration,” he said.
“We just have to keep working and hope that we can get the parliament to do something honourable.”
The debate on the draft law is set to continue at the National Assembly today.