Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Monday, October 18, 2010

In Cambodia, No Land Title, No Rights

By WILL BAXTER (The Wall Street Journal)

As Cambodia's economy booms after years of war and instability, its residents are struggling to cope with a new problem: Land grabs and forced evictions that have affected more than 250,000 Cambodians over the past five years, according to Cambodia-based rights group Licadho, which began recording data on land disputes in 2005.

The roots of the problem can be traced back to the rule of the Khmer Rouge, a radical Communist rebel group that abolished Cambodia's land titling system in 1975 when they outlawed ownership of private property.

Although the Khmer Rouge lost power in 1979, even today few Cambodians possess official land titles, making it easier for private businesses to force people off their land for urban development projects and large-scale agro-business plantations.

Often, residents are relocated -- sometimes without compensation -- to areas far from their jobs, health care and adequate water and sanitation, activists say. In many cases, the companies benefiting from land acquisitions are owned or controlled by government ministers, ruling party senators, military officials and their family members, activists add.

"Over the last 15 years, Cambodia's ruling elite have enriched themselves by selling off the country's forests, fisheries, land and most recently mineral resources," said David Pred, executive director of Bridges Across Borders Cambodia.

The government dismisses charges of excessive and inappropriate land deals and says some development projects are necessary to promote the country's economy.

"Land and cultural resources are the two major potentials Cambodia possesses (which) can be used to develop the country," says Im Chhun Lim, Minister of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, in Cambodia. So "there should not be a question to why Cambodia" uses its large tracts of land "for attracting investors for developing (the) country."

He adds that while some relocations create challenges for residents, over time living conditions improve as basic infrastructure is installed and relocated residents are integrated into their new areas.

Either way, advocates say, the disputes are likely to continue -- Cambodia's growing economy is expected to generate even more demand for land in the years ahead.

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