Let us imagine a land dispute between you and your neighbor. Let us say there is a “disputed area” between your two properties. You know that small part of the garden is yours, but your neighbor has been using it for years and argued that the previous owners sold the plot to them before you arrived. However, you have yet to see any official documents proving it. What is the process to follow if you are not able to find a common arrangement? Go to the state. The state, and in this case the judiciary system, can act as the necessary third party to arbitrate your territorial dispute. 

Yet what happens when one of the stakeholders is the state? The state can exert its power to take the lands to suit its political agenda, resulting in evictions, violence, and destruction of the livelihoods of vulnerable citizens. In Cambodia, state-sponsored land grabs are extremely common, especially throughout the past decades due to political changes and complex property laws. According to ADHOC, a non-profit organization, 777,000 Cambodians were affected by land conflicts and evictions between 2000 and 2013.

Since February 2021, Cambodian families and land defenders have been protesting the government-approved construction of the new Phnom Penh International airport in the capital. The construction of the airport started in 2018 and the airport is expected to be mostly functional by 2023. It has cost roughly $1.5 billion and will take up more than 2,600 hectares of land. Consequently, many Cambodians who live in the area are being evicted, and, as many rely on the land for farming as a source of food and income, are also losing their livelihoods. They have been fighting for recognition or compensation from the government, but to no avail. Yet, this ongoing dispute is not an isolated incident. 

Scarcity of Formal Individual Property Throughout Cambodian Regimes

Most Western perceptions of Cambodia lack any nuance and can be summed up in three words: Asia, Angkor, and genocide. What is commonly overlooked is that Cambodia was once the heart of a powerful empire that ruled over Southeast Asia for 800 years, between the 8th and 16th centuries. It later remained a small kingdom tolerated by its powerful neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam. At that time, the land belonged solely to the King. The crown allowed households to cultivate as much land as they could without any individual property rights.

In 1863, Cambodia almost disappeared from the face of the earth because of a war between Vietnam and Thailand. King Norodom of Cambodia called on France to support his kingdom and protect its citizens against their fierce neighboring powers. Little did he know that France would take the opportunity to affirm its power in southeast Asia and make Cambodia a colonial vassal. The French administration lasted 90 years. During its rule, France attempted to implement an official system of private land ownership for the first time.

When Cambodia gained independence in 1953, it had a dozen peaceful years, allowing for economic growth and development. The government continued the French colonial attempt to sort out land ownership; however, it remained on a small scale. A few years of insecurity followed the start of the Vietnam War. The first coup in 1970 overthrew the King, and a second in 1975 allowed the Khmer Rouge, a militant Maoist group, to take power and carry out a brutal revolution. The regime tried to reorganize Cambodian society according to communist ideals and dismantled private ownership. As a result, many people fled the regime, left their lands, and immigrated abroad. All land then belonged to the state and was farmed collectively by defined groups of farmers. 

Diagram by Marion Paparella thanks to the following source

By 1979, the Khmer Rouge was overthrown by Vietnam, leaving the awful legacy of approximately 1.7 million deaths within four years. After some stability and the successful establishment of a new Cambodian government, two trends emerged simultaneously. On the one hand, Cambodians who had fled or had been displaced returned to their original lands and houses. But, on the other hand, the Cambodian state still owned land and ratified laws to declare void all property rights or claims in place before 1979.  

Government Mismanagement: Land Disputes Dating Back to the 1990s and 2000s 

The Cambodian government’s main priority after the disaster of the Khmer Rouge regime was to set the economy back on track and enable Cambodians to have a decent livelihood. The 1990s was an era of economic liberalization. In the previous years, American president, Ronald Reagan, and British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, had wholly revolutionized their respective domestic economies and thus global economic policies. The four “Asian Tigers” (Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong-Kong) were at the top of their economic growth, following in Japan’s footsteps. Flourishing economies in Asia demonstrated that the West no longer held an international monopoly on economic wealth. Even China and Vietnam, the last bastions of communism, began introducing reforms to transform their economies into free-market-oriented ones. As for Cambodia, the government also attempted to surf on that wave.

Given its heavily rural society, the Cambodian government wanted to enforce strong reforming policies to transform its economy and develop its industrial and manufacturing sectors, deemed the best path to modernity. These policies are why, to this day, the government has been focusing on attracting foreign investors. Since the 1990s, it has liberalized its national economy and redistributed and privatized lands, which ultimately profits Cambodian elites and private companies. Land conflicts and evictions date back to this period and affect the most vulnerable populations, including women and children.

In 2001, the government ratified a new land law, which legalized and promoted the favouring of international private companies on Cambodian territory. In fact, the law instated Economic Land Concessions (ELCs), which entail the leasing of land owned by the state to private investors for up to 99 years. Similarly, the law put in place the process of land registration, which theoretically enables people who have been living somewhere for more than five years to claim that land as their own.

Land registration is still ongoing after 20 years and has effectively benefited companies and elites, who are better able to go through the process than regular citizens. The law does allow for Social Land Concessions (SLCs) for the landless, but the plots provided are in infertile and remote areas, with close to zero infrastructures. In June 2020, the state gave only 5,000 landless families residential and agricultural land. Yet 85% of Cambodians still depend on agriculture. 

Today, the 2001 land law remains the legal reference regarding property rights in Cambodia, whereas land disputes between citizens, the government, and private companies continue to multiply. Peripheral elements can also help to explain this issue. Firstly, the population of Cambodia is growing at a fast pace. It nearly tripled in 40 years, going from 6.7 million in 1979 to 17 million in 2021. If the government already had difficulty providing safe and fertile land to citizens 30 years ago, the task is further complicated by the growing population. 

Secondly, the government lacks accurate and extensive mapping data about Cambodian territories such as, the land value, whether they are already in use, how many communities could be affected by leasing this land, and more. Given these obstacles, the government often ends up blindly renting grounds without measuring the potential impacts. In 2011, almost a third of rural households did not own agricultural land and half-owned less than one hectare for cultivation.

2012 showed a light at the end of the tunnel when Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen announced the stop of ELCs and reduced the maximum leasing period from 99 to 50 years for new leases. However, this step is but a drop in the ocean. In 2017, the government granted 2.6 million hectares to both mining and agro-industrial domestic and international investors. But, according to Vann Sophat, a land activist, in 2017 only 20% of land disputes were resolved.

Davids against Goliaths: How Civil Society Tries to Fight Back

Evictions continue to be the day-to-day reality for many Cambodians. The case of the International Phnom Penh Airport is a prime example, where bulldozers are clearing farmlands and pose a violent threat to local citizens. The end of the first construction stage is planned for 2023, but the last part stretches until 2050. The current Cambodian government pursued this huge infrastructure project with a total disregard for its impact on the livelihoods of people concerned —no warning nor anticipation. “Our family’s farmland has not been paid for, and we have been planting early-rainy season rice for almost three weeks,” a resident of a neighboring village said back in May. Then, at least 300 families were protesting and asking for better deals from the government. The government often resorts to force and detention to discourage villagers from protesting.

The problem is that most land disputes represent a dynamic like that of David and Goliath. Unresolved cases stem from conflicts between the rich and the poor, the elite and the lower asses, the state and the people – all relationships with extreme power asymmetries. “The rich and powerful—if they want land, they just point their fingers [and] take it all,” said a member of the Punong, an Indigenous community. As a result, in addition to government land leases to private companies, illegal land grabs from the elites and senior government officials occur, and the latter make deals with unscrupulous investors. 

In both these cases, joining forces is the key. Joint protests and civil society organizations can (sometimes) be successful intermediaries for negotiations. For example, mass protests in February 2021 urged the government to free land activists arrested in previous months. In the case of the airport, 31 civil society groups publicized a joint statement a month ago urging for rapid and adequate compensation for the evicted families. “We request [that] the relevant party compensates the owners appropriately in accordance with the market price to avoid coercive agreements.” Yet, the government dismissed the community’s vocal activism. 

In some cases, such initiatives worked for the benefit of the most vulnerable. However, for them to work, they have to match specific criteria, such as advocating through international networks, getting support from local authorities, protesting against companies with limited political ties, and using the time before local or national elections. This shows that only a solid political will of the government can solve land disputes in Cambodia. Sadly, the Phnom Penh airport is one of the many cases of land disputes in Cambodia, some dating back to the 1990s. Additionally, two other international airports are currently being constructed as well in Cambodia. Which stems the question: at what price should the government pursue this kind of economic development?

Edited by Pearl Zhou

Marion Paparella

Originally from France, Marion works for the non-profit sector, supporting young people and migrants in finding work and better living conditions. She earned a BA in Political Science at McGill University,...