The recent articles on land evictions in Bos village, Kaun Kriel, Oddar Meanchey, and in Chroy Changvar, Russeo Keo, Phnom Penh, make for disturbing reading. In some cases one can see the background, e. g. the heavily debated and widely argued Dey Krahom land dispute. In other cases the information is not readily available to an outsider. But since I am at present in Cambodia I tried to get behind the two stories by talking to a few knowledgeable people.
These sources said that the failures of the local governments lie at the heart of the whole eviction problem, that is, on the Sangkat, Khan, and provincial levels. For years and years the local governments have allowed people to settle practically wherever they want. This is probably a holdover from Communist times, during which the government was occupied more with party matters, doctrine, and the well-being of their functionaries than the welfare and lives of the population. As was often the case, people couldn’t expect too much help from their local leaders. They just didn’t care, or only if their own personal interests were affected. Like in all Communist countries a very active underground economy established itself and people took many matters in their own hands.
This carried over once Cambodia morphed from a Communist people’s republic into the State of Cambodia and then into the Kingdom of Cambodia. People were absolutely free to move and settle wherever they chose. During Communist times there still were some restrictions in place but not as harsh as in the Soviet Union or East Germany, for instance. The claims of many people to ownership of the land they lived on date back to that time. This is why one encounters claims such as in Bos village where some people state they have lived there for 30 years, which would put them there at around 1989, exactly the year the Cambodian governments recognizes as the start of ownership by possession (continued occupation). Under that tenet claims to ownership by people 40 and under without their parents living there with them, or without their parents who are now deceased ever having lived there, appear suspicious to begin with.
But regardless of age, the fact of the matter is that people live on land that doesn’t belong to them, unless the provisions of the land law or common law apply. No matter which law or regulation applies, however, one can’t really blame the people who are mostly ignorant of any legal underpinnings of their settling in certain places. It is a fact that local governments, and it would fall into their jurisdiction, allow people to this day to move from place to place unhindered, which of course is their right, buth they also let them settle on state land and use for their purposes. If it is in private hands the owner no doubt will quickly get them to move. Most empty lots both in Phnom Penh and in the countryside are guarded by someone sent there by the owners in order to prevent just that.
People routinely set up shop alongside roads to hawk fruit, vegetables, drinks, and snacks. Their ramshackle huts serve both as store and living quarters. Mostly they eke out enough to feed their family, and needless to say, they cry foul once the local government approaches them with their order to relocate. It’s, of course, exactly the same for people tilling a rice paddy or small mango grove in rural areas.
One good example is the road from Sihanoukville to Stung Hao, which I travel frequently since I own property there. This road is heavily traveled by trucks coming from the port using this road to get to highway no. 4. Many tanker trucks travel from the oil depots right after Hun Sen Beach to Sihanoukville and in the other direction to Phnom Penh.
Right after the port there used to be those roadside vendors and it was really a hassle to get through that stretch of road with all that truck traffic, not to mention the people on their motorbikes that usually go every which way, mostly a way least expected. Finally, the provincial government caught up with the situation and ordered those huts moved. It is not known whether they gave them a new location or they just told them to move. It appears as if the people were just told to move. So what they did was move their establishments about 3 km up the road right after the next village. Granted the road there is a little wider but you can just wait for the next order to move as traffic will certainly increase again once real construction of the new port in Stung Hao has begun, and I won’t even think about the time when it is finished.
Another example is Hun Sen Beach itself. Were it not for the unsightly pipeline jetty to the Sokimex and Total (is it?) depots this stretch of beach could become a major tourist attraction in the area. But every now and then one can see squatters who have set up shop and quarters there. Sometimes the authorities move in and get them to leave again. But hardly a week or two go by until the next family starts building some shack. This happens over and over again. Likewise at other locations one can safely assume that authorities just don’t bother until the time some developer comes along and offers to lease or buy the land. Authorities hear the word ‘development’ and get all excited without thinking much about what land they are talking about. They know this is state-owned property and they forget people might actually live there. Once the contract is signed they are really surprised to find out they now have to deal with people living on the land, and they begin to wonder how to go about it. First, and this is from a knowledgeable source, they normally send a policeman or lower official to the community and tell them they need to move soon as the site has been sold or leased. The officials don’t worry about rights violations or other, in their minds, ‘outlandish’ ideas.
In the vast majority of the cases the dwellers don’t have a title to the land. Most of them simply don’t know about it. For instance, I know a family in Kratie province that has owned land since Sihanouk’s time before Lon Nol. At that time they had proper titles and all. But all documents were lost during the Khmer Rouge period. They have been working this land since 1979 and nobody ever asked any questions and consequently nobody ever thought of getting proper documents. Only recently did the chief of the Sangkat tell them to file proper title to their land so their wouldn’t be any dispute later on. Similarly, these ‘squatter’ just didn’t bother with doucments. But now they are faced with relocation from land they thought was theirs. These people can be pretty obstinate and, therefore, they just don’t act on what the policeman told them. After a while, if the situation warrants it and if they expect stronger resistance, the authorities might offer an alternative location. Usually, people just don’t want to move from their accustomed place and simply refuse to leave. Now things get dicey. Khmer people in power don’t take disobedience well. In their eyes they have to act decisively, otherwise their whole authority would be undermined. Well, they usually first issue an ultimatum, maybe even a second one, but then they just move in with what is available them, which, naturally, is the local police force, and sometimes the local army commander helps out with a platoon or squad. Bulldozers and fires will certainly make those ‘hardheaded’ people move. This is, of course, heavy-handed by most standards, but according to my sources, if the authorities did not move in with force these people would just not move – the people who squat on the land ‘illegally’ to begin with. Illegally is correct, at least in most cases, but it only came to that because the authorities did not enforce their regulations in the first place. After all, the authorities are there to help and serve the people, but this concept has apparently not quite permeated all Khmer government circles. Instead of engaging in endless conferences, workshops, and meetings with unknown outcomes, perhaps they could sit down and think ahead of time in order to ward off those unsavory confrontations with their own people, the human rights organizations, and donor countries. It’s called advance planning.
There is one example, though, where the government did it right – and there may be others. The state owns quite a few rubber plantations in Kompong Cham and other provinces. All these plantations are in the process of being privatized. Some smaller parts of these state-owned plantations were leased to private smallholders. These small leaseholds were sometimes sold to other parties. Last year the government was negotiating to lease 5,000 hectares to a private company so it could finally get some benefit from their perennially mismanaged rubber plantations. In preparation it issued a directive that no current leasehold was to be traded and that the leaseholds were going to be terminated at the beginning of this year. It may not be a perfectly fitting example in the context of land evictions, but the leaseholders knew in advance they had to leave, and in order to avoid any undue complications and outcries from possibly deceived buyers of those leaseholds and self-appointed protectors of rights, the government let it be known well in advance what is was planning to do. In the end the whole situation was resolved in a civilized manner. It just goes to show that it can be done.