‘If You Take Away Land, You Take Away Life’

Cambodia's prime minister made a promise to tackle the country's most nagging social problem. Now his compatriots are taking him at his word.


PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Sixty-six-year-old farmer Nil Rath had never been to Phnom Penh until he came to petition the government to keep his land. "I feel so nervous; I just want this problem solved," he said one recent afternoon, nervously fingering the threadbare collar of his jacket. Along with 124 people from his small village in Banteay Meanchey province, Nil had made the daylong journey by rented car to Cambodia’s capital. The villagers — who fear they will soon lose their farms to a new rubber plantation project — were sleeping on reed mats unfurled on the tiled floors of Wat Chas, a Buddhist temple in Phnom Penh.

For almost a year since Cambodia’s national election in July 2013, the country’s leading opposition party refused to join parliament, demanding a recount of the widely disputed ballot results. The political impasse finally ended in late July, with a compromise agreement keeping long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen in power at least through 2018. But even the 62-year-old Hun Sen, who has led the Southeast Asian nation since 1985, sensed that he needed to sound a note of reform by acknowledging the popular and pent-up frustrations that nearly toppled him — and perhaps, by the numbers, should have — at the ballot box last summer.

That was almost certainly the calculation behind his nationally televised speech on Aug. 18. First, the prime minister claimed to be unaware of the extent of existing land conflicts, and blamed his underlings for mismanaging disputes and not keeping him informed (an assertion worth a bit of skepticism). But he also promised to pay greater attention going forward to the explosive national issue of land rights — to fire local officials unable to resolve clashes and to accept petitions from communities who felt their concerns were ignored. "Any land lived on and farmed by the people must be for people," he said.

Nil Rath and his neighbors staying in the temple were among the first Cambodians to take the prime minister at his word. They were hardly alone. In the last two weeks, a flurry of frustrated land activists have taken to the streets of Phnom Penh, attempting to deliver petitions laying out their grievances to the National Parliament, the Ministry of Justice — and even the American Embassy.

According to the Phnom Penh-based human rights group Licadho, at least a half million Cambodians have been evicted, or threatened with eviction, since 2000. Economic growth, led by the booming garment-export sector and resource-extraction industries, has driven up the value of land in this country of 15 million. Because property records were destroyed by the communist Pol Pot regime, many families who have been living on their farms for generations still lack legal proof of ownership. "The Khmer Rouge destroyed all administrative documents: land titles; birth, marriage, and death certificates — they destroyed all records of the past," says Licadho president Pung Chhiv Kek.

In 2001, Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party passed a land law that, in theory, allows people living on property for at least five years to purchase new deeds; however, local corruption has prevented many from registering. Meanwhile, the law also established the framework for granting "economic land concessions" of up to 99 years to foreign companies and investors to develop large plantations for growing rubber, sugar, palm oil, and for logging. In the past decade, farmers without legal titles have been accused of living on "public land" and forcibly evicted.

Nil Rath, the old farmer staying in the temple, says his family cleared the jungle to make room for their farm that grows rice and mango trees more than a decade ago, and that the village chief recognizes them as de facto land owners. But he doesn’t have a property title, and now a new development project, which he knows little about, has recently claimed the land near his village. "All the people here" — he gestures at others sleeping on the temple floor — "worked very hard to clear their land, but now rich people come along and do nothing. They just come to us and say it’s their land."

Unlike in the past, Cambodian land activists have now joined forces to press their claims. On Aug. 25, about a hundred protesters from three communities facing eviction marched together to deliver petitions sealed in brown envelopes, and stamped with residents’ thumbprints, to the Ministry of Justice and the National Assembly. One woman wore a black T-shirt with white lettering: "The whole world is watching." Protesters from the countryside are staying with Phnom Penh-based land activists, or in city temples where they’re teaming up with a new generation of social justice-oriented monks. The monks, who wield smartphones, help out by posting videos of land demonstrations on Facebook. "The rule of the monks is, when people have problems, of course we will be there to stand with them," said Maly Keo, a bespectacled 34-year-old monk who is a leader of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, which formed last summer. He was following the demonstration, filming it with his iPhone.

To be sure, there is reason to wonder whether or not the government will take the citizen petitions seriously. On their first attempt to march to the National Assembly, the villagers sleeping inside Wat Chas were trapped inside the temple gates by a line of military police, who are often deployed to control crowds in Phnom Penh. But last Monday, after sneaking out in the predawn hours, they finally managed to deliver their handwritten plea for justice. In the three weeks since Hun Sen’s speech, government ministries have received a deluge of petitions detailing the concerns of thousands of land activists facing eviction. "If they don’t solve the issue, we’ll be back," says 35-year-old protester Mol Searn, who traveled to the capital from rural Lor Peang community. "I don’t trust Hun Sen. Land-grabbing has been happening a long time. Has he been asleep for 30 years?"

Meanwhile, Cambodian NGOs have had some success in resolving land disputes by appealing to international institutions that provide financing for development projects. For example, NGOs and organizers in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak Lake community were able to stop a luxury apartment development project from evicting several hundred families without due compensation by appealing to the World Bank in 2009. In 2011, the bank’s internal Inspection Panel determined that its loan for the project violated its own operational principles. "The evictions took place in violation of the Bank policy on Involuntary Resettlement and resulted in grave harm to the affected families and community," said Inspection Panel Chairperson Roberto Lenton in a 2011 statement. While resolving the issue, the World Bank temporarily froze lending to Cambodia’s government. However, another development project has cropped up, this one to restore Cambodia’s long-defunct railroad, which cuts through the Boeung Kak Lake area. Lake activists are now working to draw attention to the residents who are likely to be displaced by this second project. (The photo above shows an activist from the Boeung Kak Lake area advocating for land rights at a 2013 protest in Phnom Penh.)

In a similar vein, the nonprofit group Equitable Cambodia is currently helping Phnom Penh residents living in the wake of an airport expansion project appeal to the World Bank’s private lending arm, International Financial Corp., to ensure that they receive compensation for their land. "We’ve been trying for years to use local grievance mechanisms, without much progress," says Equitable Cambodia’s executive director Eang Vuthy, a former lawyer turned advocate. "That’s why we’re extending our work to include international institutions, to make them responsible to their own policies."

Mu Sochua, a longtime women’s rights advocate and new parliamentarian for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, says that land — more than any other issue in Cambodia — is a focal point for dissent: "If you take away land, you take away life." If Hun Sen’s ruling party simply ignores the protesters sleeping in temples and marching with petitions, she predicts that his three-decade rule, the longest in Asia, may finally come to an end in 2018. "There’s a new ‘awakening’ in Cambodia," she says, sitting in her still sparsely decorated government office. "People aren’t afraid of speaking out anymore — and now they are saying, ‘This is enough.’"

Christina Larson is an award-winning science and technology journalist based in Beijing. Twitter: @larsonchristina

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