Cambodia – A Country as Candyshop for Landgrabbers

“My house, possessions, clothes, all went up in smoke. Nothing was left”

said Mai, a woman who lived in Bos/O’Bat Moan, a village in the province of Oddar Meanchey, after 150 men from police, military and presumptive workers of the company, which was granted a concession for a large area including her village, burnt down and bulldozed 119 houses.

When she went to Phnom Penh in October 2009 to complain to prime minister Hun Sen about the forced eviction, she was incarcerated for offending forestry laws and only released in June 2010, after signing a written disclaim on the rights for her land.

Other villagers, who protested against the forced evictions, were beaten, intimidated and arrested by police and military officials. Until today they haven’t received any compensation for their lost plots of land yet. [1]

The company was the Thai sugar producer Mitr Phol, represented through the three companies Angkor Sugar Co. Ltd., Tonle Sugar Cane Co. Ltd. and Cane and Sugar Valley Co. Ltd., all of them affiliated to Ly Yong Phat.

Threats, intimidation, harassment, misinformation, violence, arrests and legal measures, based on bogus charges, against community leaders and activists are common instruments in clearing sites for Economic Land Concessions (ELCs).

Broken Promises

The Cambodian constitution provides a legal framework for evictions which includes consultation with the affected people, appropriate and just compensation and a public interest in the removal of the inhabitants as prerequisites for lawful evictions.

In order to unjustly fulfill the requirement of public interest the concessionaires make hazy promises: For the ELCs in Oddar Meanchey province, the involved municipal officials and Mitr Phol promised to create about 5000 jobs and the investment of millions of dollars.

In April 2015, the sugar producer pulled out of its ELCs in Oddar Meanchey and the promises remained unrealized. Instead of planting sugar, building a processing plant and creating jobs, Mitr Phol contracted an unidentified company for harvesting timber and sending it as sleepers for train tracks to Thailand. [2]

After the villagers filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, the comissioner Niran Phitakwatchara visited the affected communities in August 2014. In his statement at the following press conference in Phnom Penh he confirmed the accusations against Mitr Phol:

“The concession has resulted in the illegal [taking] of land from local people, destruction of their homes, killing of livestock and shooting, beating, threat[ening] and intimidation and harass[ment] of the villagers.”

He added that most of the land was fallow, with the only exception of some cassava shrubs and that there were no company officials on the plantation. [3]

Broken Laws

Consultations with persons concerned, which are obligate for the apportionment of ELCs, are used to spread misinformation and for intimidation, rather than to find a consensual solution – if they take place at all.

According to the Cambodian constitution every Cambodian has the right to own land. Due to the fact that during the regime of the Khmer Rouge documents about land rights were destroyed, the Land Law from 2001 stipulates the possibility to turn land possession in legal, documented ownership. Therefore any person who is in uncontested and unequivocal possession of a plot of land for five years has the right to apply for a title of ownership. But not all Cambodians know about that possibility and sometimes the applications for documents are quite simply denied by municipal officials on shady grounds.

Nevertheless officials often claim, despite valid documents, that the settlements are informal and the inhabitants have no right of the land and thereby no right to compensation.
Fair and just compensation is not common and would make the ELCs unattractive or at least less profitable for companies. In a case study from Phnom Penh, the Fordham Law School describes the situation as follows:

“Forced evictions in Cambodia typically occur when the government grants land concessions to third parties by swapping plots of land that have drastically increased in value, usually occupied by poor communities, in exchange for isolated plots on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.” [4]

The compensation for the residents from Borei Keila in Phnom Penh, affected by the concession for Shukaku Inc. was a plot of undeveloped land outside the city without shelter or infrastructure and 100.000 Riel, about $25. [5], [6], [7], [8]

Violence and Impunity

Executive authorities, the judiciary, as well as governmental officials mutually support the concessionaires and violence against evictees.

On 3 January 2012, at least 12 people, including a policeman, were injured, when police shot with tear gas grenades and live ammunition at residents from Borei Keila, who resisted their eviction. (Video)

In several cases military personnel were hired by companies as private security guards – one prominent example is the TTY Company crackdown on protesters. On 18 January 2012 in Snuol district in Kratie, these security guards shot at civilians and injured four, when the villagers tried to keep the bulldozers from destroying their cassava fields. (Video)

An even more tragic incident is the death of the 13 year old girl Heng Chantha. The Company Casotim claimed the land on which the village Broma in the Kampong Domrey commune in Kratie was located. Despite the fact that the company never showed documents to the villagers to proof their claim and the most recent publicly available concession marked the border of the Casotim concession about 15 km away from the settlement, police, military police and soldiers besieged it on the 15 May 2012. The next morning they started a warfare-like raid with helicopter support, in which Heng Chantha was shot by a soldier.

The governor of the province, Sar Chamrong, described the operation as “successful”. Furthermore he had a bizarre explanation for the aggressive action. He justified the violent attack, by stating that the villagers were armed with “axes, knives, hoes, crossbows and arrows” and claimed that they attempted “secession” from Cambodia.

“The secession allegations are a very transparent pretext – and not a very persuasive one – to justify the unlawful use of the military against civilians. Are we to believe that a few hundred villagers armed with sticks and crossbows are trying to start their own country? The more reasonable explanation is that they simply want to farm their own land.” [9]

Dr. Pung Chhiv Kek, the president of the Cambodian Human Rights NGO LICADHO, answered to the governer’s statement.

More than three years after the murder of Heng Chanta, there are still no investigations or charges against the perpetrators and there are no legal consequences for Ly Yong Phat, Mitr Phol, Casotim, TTY, violent security forces or municipal officials.
The only people who face trials and jail are the underprivileged, who try to protect their livelihoods. [10]

Win – Lose – Lose

This impunity leads to the situation that certain individuals and companies, as long as they have money and patronage, could take possessions of the poor like a candy bar out of a supermarket shelf.
In May 2012 Prime Minister Hun Sen signed a moratorium on ELCs, but by then more than 2.1 million hectares, or almost 12% of the whole country, were already rent out to concessionaires for time frames between decades and 99 years. [11]

A survey by the local NGO Housing Rights Task Force in 2012 showed that unemployment rose among evictees from Phnom Penh from 18.4% to 35.7%, because the relocation site was too far away from their former workplaces. Furthermore the vast majority of relocation sites are not fit for settlement. No access to water or sanitation, lack of schools and medical infrastructure drives the affected in a futile situation. [12]
According to a joint report from GISCorps, Amnesty International USA and the local housing rights group Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, over 100,000 families were forcibly evicted in Phnom Penh from 2000 to 2009.[13]
Farmers who lived a modest but self-sufficient life are forced to work on the plantations which took place on their former farmlands for famine wages. To earn enough for the whole family, even children work on plantations, like on Ly Yong Phat’s sugar crops in Kompong Speu province. [14]

But the loser is the state also, which has to deal with the impoverished people, who were thrown out of a self-sufficient life into the lack of prospects.

Interactive Map about Concessions in Cambodia

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