The Cambodian Land Grab – A Khmer Spring in Sight?

By Lisa-Marie Rudi

Lisa-Marie Rudi is currently working as a research associate for the Berkeley Human Rights Center after receiving an LL.M. with a specialization in International Law from Berkeley Law. Lisa holds a LL.B. in International and European Law from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and worked for the UN in Cambodia from 2011-2012. Views expressed in this blog-post are entirely her own.


After decades of civil war and poverty, the people of the Kingdom of Cambodia are facing a new challenge: “Land grabs.” Acquisitions of large tracts of land by private enterprises and/or government officials leading to nonconsensual displacement of communities have increased rapidly in recent years. The people of the “Kingdom of Wonders” have become accustomed to stories of evicted families torn from their homes in the middle of the night and subsequently living in inadequate relocation sites without sewage systems and sufficient shelter. Even though the Cambodian government denies that the land concessions violate Cambodian law, many NGOs claim that these illegal evictions infringe national land laws as well as the fundamental human rights of Cambodians. While a land entitlement system and land rights exist in theory, Cambodian authorities do not enforce them sufficiently and abuse the court system to dispose of rights activists and evictees who speak up.

Recently, evictions in Cambodia have made global headlines as the violence used by organs of the state against activists in connection to land conflicts has exacerbated. Armed officials who opened fire on approximately 1000 families that resisted eviction in Cambodia’s Kratie province killed a fourteen-year-old girl. Similarly, Chut Wutty, a Cambodian environmental activist, died in a dubious accident while escorting journalists to a protected forest area in Koh Kong province. He was shot in his car near a logging camp, in which one of the wealthiest businessmen of Cambodia, a former advisor to the prime minister, had received the governmental permission to cut down protected forest areas. Regrettably, a government inquiry into Wutty’s death—opened and shut within three days—not only failed to address the details of his death, but also refrained from addressing the illegal logging that he was investigating.

Other international bodies have expressed discontent with the current situation in Cambodia. In 2005, the UN Special Rapporteur on Housing Rights, Miloon Kothari, found “a frenzy now across the country by the rich and powerful in Cambodia to acquire land.” David Pred, the country director of the NGO Bridges Across Borders went even further, stating that “excluding Burma, Cambodia has the most abusive record of forced evictions in the region.” Similarly, Surya Subedi, UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia, expressed his bewilderment when confronted with the inhumane conditions at relocation sites. He urged the Cambodian government to act with more transparency when dealing with land concessions, and to make the process more inclusive for the individuals and communities affected. It appears that his efforts have had little impact, as prime minister Hun Sen gave a daunting statement on November 26, 2012, warning human rights groups that involvement in land rights issues would not be without consequences.

The Cambodian government additionally made global headlines through a fallout with the World Bank over the eviction of ten thousand residents from the Boeung Kak Lake settlement. The settlement in question was located around a large lake in the center of Phnom Penh, which Shukaku Inc., a private development company headed by Senator Lao Meng Khin from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, completely filled with sand for the purpose of building residential and commercial buildings. The World Bank had previously supported a land-titling program for Boeng Kak Lake residents, which the government chose to disregard. Having observed in dismay that the residents’ land titles proved to be worthless as soon as the government granted the concession, the World Bank withdrew all funding from Cambodia. Evictees from the Boeung Kak settlement have since become icons of the Cambodian human rights activists, with one of their leaders jailed on charges of “intentional violence with aggravating circumstances” as she protested against her eviction.

If the Cambodian government continues to support and benefit from “land grabs” and does not implement democratic reforms to curb corruption and increase public participation mechanisms, it potentially finds itself with a “Khmer Spring” on its hands—a term that specialists have used to refer to a possible uprising in the Khmer-speaking country. The Cambodian people are angry and becoming more so with every new family evicted and every activist jailed on groundless charges.

“Legal” Evictions

Most evictions have several factors in common: the disregard of applicable Cambodian legislation, the unlawful use of security forces, and the abuse of judicial processes to silence the rightful owners. Many evictions take place under the label of “economic land concessions,” which accord with article fifty-nine of Cambodia’s 2002 land law as long as they do not exceed 10,000 hectares, and as long as the land is used for agricultural and industrial-agricultural exploitation. Under the 2002 land law, the government can grant concession contracts for up to ninety-nine years. However, the government may only lawfully grant such concessions over land classified as private state property acquired for the “public interest.” Most economic land concessions do not fulfill any of these requirements. In fact, the definition of “public interest” remains unclear, which leaves significant discretion to officials, who grant economic land concessions for reasons unknown to the public. Moreover, years of conflict and lack of comprehensive land laws under the Khmer Rouge regime and under Vietnamese communist occupation have left many families living on land they inherited from their ancestors without a formal title. While the Cambodian land law envisages a titling system for such cases, in the absence of formal proof it is easy for the government to ignore the fact that such families have had their land often for several generations.

Government’s Defense: The Economic Development Argument

The Cambodian government often justifies land concessions and connected evictions with the argument that the commercial use of land will generate returns and create employment opportunities. Proponents argue that Cambodia, as a post-conflict society in need of investment influx, should prioritize economic development over human rights because easily “grabbed” lands may attract capital into the country, ultimately elevating the inhabitants’ quality of life through general economic development.

According to this argument, weak land rights lure beneficial foreign investment into the country, and construction projects realized on “grabbed” land create job opportunities. Studies of Cambodian evictions, however, illuminate no such positive effects. In fact, many investors have “grabbed” lands without a particular purpose in mind, and following forceful evictions, have left the land vacant for years. According to the USAID Land Tenure and Property Rights Portal, “Overall, weak enforcement of tenure rights has made it possible for influential individuals (often operating through legal entities) and groups to acquire large landholdings for speculative or unproductive purposes.” Others find that, due to a complete lack of restrictive usage criteria for those who acquire lands, many investors have focused on harvesting existing forest resources and have left land areas idle after logging. Others have acquired their land with the sole intention of waiting for an increase of its value in order to sell it. Thus, while the argument of large-scale positive effects of land concessions on the economy could have some validity in theory, such benefits are not apparent in practice in Cambodia.

Moreover, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (“LICADHO”) found no tangible benefits for local communities from most concessions. Where “development” projects realized on grabbed land generated employment, project companies often brought in workers from other provinces instead of employing those whose land had been “grabbed.” Additionally, in cases in which a project company employed evictees, rewards often proved inferior to previous incomes. Furthermore, LICADHO found that evictees become not only economically vulnerable through the loss of land but are also prone to infectious diseases due to the common inadequateness of relocation sites. Thus, the economic argument in favor of evictions, which claims that cheap and easily accessible land can attract investors that in turn contribute to the country’s economic development and general welfare, does not hold up in practice, as most “grabbed” lands lie idle or do not benefit the people who were deprived of their livelihoods, shelter and health through evictions.

Corruption and lack of good governance contributes to land grabbing

Despite consistent economic growth in recent years, Cambodia is known for its poor human rights record. Its freedom of press, freedom of expression, and strength of the rule of law are not in line with international standards. In addition, according to Transparency International, its corruption index lies at 2.1 out of 10, ranking 164th out of 183 countries. Corruption is closely linked to many problems that we see in Cambodia such as a weak court system, increasing inequality, abuse of power by officials, and a lack of public participation.

The “Kingdom of Wonders” finds itself trapped in a vicious cycle in which corruption prevents improvement of governance and the rule of law, and the strengthening of institutions. This situation allows for easy land grabs which increase the gap between the poor and the rich with only the elite benefitting from land concessions, and vulnerable households experiencing deprivation of their livelihoods. Unfortunately, the ever-growing wealth of the ruling class provides increasingly strong incentives and means for corruption. A report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia in 2011 identified “a trend characterized by the convergence of the State apparatus with private business interests,“ indicating that a rather small number of people have the bulk of economic as well as political power in their hands.

A Khmer Spring?

The increasing frustration of the Cambodian people and the persistent abuse of power by authorities may cause the current situation to exacerbate. According to the World Bank, rapid economic growth in a post-conflict society such as Cambodia, which increases population density in urban areas and raises the value of land, can culminate in one of two scenarios. The first scenario is the development of institutions that define and protect property rights, while the second scenario predicts costly conflicts over land rights. Unfortunately, it appears that the latter is the path that Cambodia has taken. In fact, the Economist Intelligence Unit Special Report in 2009 found Cambodia was one of the nations most vulnerable to socio-political unrest due to social inequality and economic distress. Inequality, caused in part by weak institutional arrangements such as weak land rights, can lead to instability and conflict in a country as the poor, such as the evictees, become increasingly frustrated with their leaders. Some commentators speak of a “Khmer Spring” and the possibility for a violent revolution overthrowing the current Cambodian leadership. Whether such a scenario is desirable seems questionable, as a revolution would lead to instability, violent government reactions and possibly even a more oppressive emerging regime. It is unclear whether it could be preferable for the current government to focus on democratic reforms to preserve stability and avoid violent clashes. Until the current leaders realize the value of such an approach, however, Cambodia remains trapped in a vicious cycle of inequality, which is reinforced and strengthened by an elite that benefits from evictions and land concessions.

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party appears to have missed the chance to listen to the voice of the people, as evidenced by recent election outcomes. In its worst election performance since 1998, the Cambodian People’s Party won sixty-eight seats of the 123 in the National Assembly, receiving a clear message from the voters that they wanted and needed to see change. The opposition has refused to attend the National Assembly in protest over alleged electoral cheating and has made land rights one of their key causes. Protests around the election were largely peaceful, and huge for Cambodian standards, but some violent clashes between protesters and security forces occurred nonetheless, leaving one dead and several injured by shots in the head and neck. The political activism and courage of protesters to speak up, in a country where dissent has been met with prison sentences, is at least partially due to the extreme inequalities that reign in Cambodia and that have pushed large parts of the population over the edge. In 1776, Adam Smith wrote: “no society can be flourishing and happy of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.” Let’s hope that bottom-up change in Cambodia will be feasible and peaceful, and lead to real flourishing for the Cambodian people.