Land Rights in Cambodia
By Ms. Bov Sophea (Boeung Kak Lake) and Mr. Sek Sokunroth (LICADHO)
May 2013- Conflict over land is the most important human rights issue facing Cambodia today. Over the past few years, the country’s biggest source of strife has been the unlawful seizure of land by state authorities, usually on behalf of well-connected business interests.
As of April 2013, over 2.2 million hectares of Cambodia’s total land mass has been granted to private firms in the form of long-term leases, mostly through the country’s Economic Land Concession (ELC) scheme. According to the local human rights NGO LICADHO, land grabbing has affected an estimated 400,000 Cambodians since 2003 – and that is just in the half of the country where LICADHO has offices. This has helped create an underclass of landless villagers with no means for self-sustenance.
The vast majority, if not all, ELCs have been issued in violation of either Cambodian laws limiting the size of concessions and requiring impact reports, prior consultations and the consent of affected communities. There is no transparency in the process of granting concessions, and fair and adequate compensation is rarely paid. Efforts to enforce the requirements in civil lawsuits have been met with years of court inaction or even retaliatory criminal charges.
In many cases, state forces, including military soldiers, provide assistance and protection to private companies involved in land disputes with villagers and take part in forceful – and often violent – evictions. In 2012, government forces conducted a military-style raid on a village embroiled in a land dispute, killing Heng Chantha, a 14-year-old girl. Last year, there were also multiple instances of authorities opening fire on peaceful land rights protestors and activists. At least 17 leaders from Phnom Penh communities facing eviction spent time in prison on false charges, including Bov Sophea, related to their activism during 2012.
In late 2012, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia Surya P. Subedi assessed the impact of land concessions in a detailed report, and concluded that “[t]here are well documented serious and widespread human rights violations associated with land concessions.” He also said that “the overwhelming conclusion drawn from petitions, letters, studies, peaceful protests, violent demonstrations, legal complaints, land-dispute statistics and my own direct observations is that land concessions are only benefiting a minority.” The situation is so bad that the Special Rapporteur even questioned the impact of concessions on Cambodia’s long term economic and political stability.
The government claims that Cambodia’s land problems were addressed by a directive issued by the Prime Minister in May 2012, which suspends new ELCs and mandates a review of existing ELCs. But both aspects of the directive have been largely ignored. Since the May 7 directive, there have been at least 16 new ELCs granted, totalling over 80,000 hectares. Meanwhile, no systematic review of ELCs is taking place. In fact the opposite has happened in some cases: In July, the government published a list of ELCs that revealed that two large problematic concessions that had been revoked in 2011 have actually been reinstated.
Most importantly, the May 7 directive does nothing to address past violent forced evictions and rights violations such as crackdowns on demonstrations and arbitrary criminal prosecutions. Nor does it offer any compensation or legal remedies to assist the hundreds of families who continue to suffer as a result of losing their homes and/or their farmland to concessions.
Last summer, the Prime Minister announced a new land titling scheme known as Directive 01. The scheme involves over 2,000 student volunteers dressed in military uniforms, who are now crossing the country to measure land and issue titles. The idea of expediting land titles is a good idea in theory, but there are problems. First, the program completely bypassed the country’s existing land titling institutions. Second, the program is carried out in a very secretive manner, with no provisions for independent monitoring. There have been numerous reports of affected land owners, especially in indigenous communities, being intimidated or tricked into accepting terms dictated by the volunteer students. Such individual titles undermine extensive efforts to protect indigenous communities through communal land titling. There are also credible reports of landholders being told their new titles would be revoked if the ruling party loses the elections.
Urban Land Issues & the Boeung Kak Lake Case
Urban land is not included in the Directive No. 01 program. As such, forced evictions of poor households from valuable urban real estate continue.
One of the most publicized cases has occurred in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak Lake area. Members of the Boeung Kak community are involved in a long-running land dispute with a company run by a ruling party Senator. Over the course of 2007 to 2011, the Senator’s company filled in the lake with sand, in many cases burying the houses of community members who had not yet left. These people lost their homes and belongings, and were not properly compensated by the state.
More than 4,000 families have been evicted from the lake since 2007, making it Cambodia’s largest mass eviction since the Khmer Rouge era. The compensation paid to these families has been minimal or non-existent. Those who resisted faced intimidation and violence from government authorities.
In 2011, the government finally set aside 12.44 hectares of land in the Boeung Kak area for about 800 remaining families to settle. This would have been an adequate solution, but scores of families were arbitrarily excluded from this plot.
Today, some 61 of these excluded families remain in the area and continue to resist the authorities’ efforts to evict them. They also continue to be physically and judicially harassed by authorities. In May 2012, 13 female activists were arrested following a demonstration and each sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison. Two more community members were arrested at the trial. All 15 were later released after intense international pressure, including a personal intervention from then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Another Boeung Kak activist, Yorm Bopha, was arrested in September 2012 and convicted in December on charges of causing “intentional violence.” She received a sentence of three years. There is no evidence – including from government witnesses – that Bopha physically harmed anyone. She was, however, a key leader in the movement to win the release of the Boeung Kak 15. She remains in prison. Bopha was named an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience in late 2012.
The community remains strong and dedicated to its goal of obtaining just compensation for the remaining families. But the government does not appear willing to negotiate on this issue.
We urge the Cambodian government to conduct a transparent and publicly disclosed land demarcation/classification as soon as possible, and call for an end to forced evictions. We also urge the government to release Yorm Bopha and other human rights defenders currently detained in prisons, and cease the harassment of community members fighting for their land rights.
For more information, please contact:
Dr. Pung Chhiv Kek, President of Cambodian League for the Promotion & Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO), firstname.lastname@example.org, (855)12-803-650