KIRA KAY: The reign of terror by the communist Khmer Rouge in the 1970s killed two million Cambodians. It also turned hundreds of thousands into refugees, and abolished the concept of private ownership of businesses and, most crucially, land. Sia Phearum is a Cambodian property rights activist.
SIA PHEARUM: The Khmer Rouge destroyed almost all documents, especially property records. When we transitioned from communism to democracy, refugees who came back from the camps just moved in and occupied any location they could find.
KIRA KAY: In essence, Cambodia became a nation of squatters. To attempt to address this problem, in 2001 the government wrote a land law that would give ownership to anyone who can prove they have occupied their land for five years. But it hasn’t been enough to protect people as the country now transitions into a magnet for investors.
Though still very poor, Cambodia has seen its economy grow on average more than 7 percent a year, currently the sixth fastest rate in the world. In the capital city, Phnom Penh, new high rise construction dots the skyline, offering places to live and shop for those who can afford it.
Manufacturing, particularly of textiles, is booming, supported by a cheap labor force and in the countryside, sugar, rubber, and palm oil are leading agricultural exports.
SENG LOTH: Cambodia is now a country of complete peace, political stability, and steady growth.
KIRA KAY: Seng Loth, of Cambodia’s Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, says the country’s growth is good for all Cambodians.
SENG LOTH: Living conditions improve daily, and it is estimated that Cambodia will move from a low-income country to a middle or even high income country by 2030.
KIRA KAY: But people are often in conflict with development, as the government grants large swaths of territory to companies for commercial projects. Land rights activists estimate five percent of the country’s 16 million people, and 10 percent of Phnom Penh are victims of such “land grabs.”
For example, the people living on this property who are fighting for apartments they say the commercial developer promised them when the government handed over six acres of prime downtown land. Instead of completing all the promised new housing, the developer sent in bulldozers – backed by police — to force out the remaining 384 families.
SOM SOMALY: They completely demolished my home, and I was not able to take any belongings along, I could only hold my child as I escaped. I had five sewing machines, and they were also destroyed.
KIRA KAY: A handful have stayed as squatters in a condemned building, insisting they should be protected by the land law, since they lived here more than five years.
But the developer has questioned their legitimacy, telling a local newspaper. “The number of residents increased as new people joined the protest and demanded compensation.”
The developer finally agreed to find apartments for about 10 percent of the evicted families, and arranged some small settlements for others. Activist Sia Phearum is working to help these families but the final offer for them to go is $3,000 dollars. That’s three years’ pay for the average Cambodian but a fraction of what is needed to secure a new apartment in the city. So these families remain stuck.
Many others forced off that site are here. A 90 minute drive from the city. They say the developer trucked them here against their will the day the bulldozers came.
KHIEV LAY: I was so shocked when I looked around, and I cried loudly, ‘How could I end up in this horrible place?’
KIRA KAY: Khiev Lay and her neighbors have struggled to create a livable village in what was an empty field just five years ago.
KHIEV LAY: Our community members here face food shortages and poor shelter. There are no jobs nearby. This site has no school, limited water, and electricity supplies, and many become sick and have nowhere to get medical treatment.
KIRA KAY: They’ve been issued no proper titles for their makeshift residences and fear being uprooted again.
KIM SARAN: It’s like we’re just guarding this land for the company, whenever they want it for future development, as land prices out here increase, we will be victimized by a second eviction.
KIRA KAY: Mu Sochua, a member of parliament and vice president of Cambodia’s opposition party, considers the government’s land concession policy a terrible giveaway.
MU SOCHUA, CAMBODIA NATIONAL RESCUE PARTY: In the name of economic development, the government will do everything, anything, at any cost. A company comes in, foreign companies or local companies come in and say, “I like this land. I want this land. The people are not even consulted and if they protest, they’re in jail.
KIRA KAY: She accuses the ruling party of long-time Prime Minister Hun Sen of giving land concessions to other government officials and wealthy political donors.
MU SOCHUA: Corruption is the culture in Cambodia. How can you compete? And how can you call it development. It does not benefit the poor, it does not benefit our people.
KIRA KAY: In the rural south of Cambodia, Phav Nhoeung and her neighbors are loading up for a four hour drive to Phnom Penh. They’ve made this trek from their village many times before to petition the government for help in getting back two thousand acres of land they say was unlawfully taken from them. The villagers, who began farming here in the 1980s, also had thought they were protected by the 2001 Cambodian Land Law. But in 2006, the government gave the land to a sugar company partly owned by a powerful politician.
PHAV NHOEUNG: We couldn’t grow any crops, so we’ve lost income, making us live in poverty. We used to have a lot of buffalos and cows, but many people had to sell them off.
KIRA KAY: Phav Nhoeung’s is one of 175 families from this area now demanding compensation for their lost income and land.
PHAV NHOEUNG: The government doesn’t dare to put pressure on powerful and rich individuals. A country of laws shouldn’t be like this.
KIRA KAY: In Phnom Penh, protests against the government and developers they blame for their displacement are now a weekly occurrence and arrests are frequent. One protest leader is currently serving two-and-a-half years in prison.
MU SOCHUA: People’s empowerment. Those are two words that are taboo, because the government thinks that is inciting violence. It’s inciting social disorder. But to us, it’s the perfect way to build democracy from the grassroots.
KIRA KAY: On more quiet days, land rights activists are training Cambodians to understand their rights and push for fair compensation. At this workshop organized by the urban land rights group S-T-T, community representatives briefed each other on their cases and strategies.
Chea Sophat, a retired air force colonel, has become an outspoken leader of his residential and farming community, now being overtaken by development. It lies on a prime riverfront peninsula across from downtown Phnom Penh.
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KIRA KAY: With the approval of the government, a developer plans to build a megacity with luxury homes, offices, shops, and public parks. Construction workers are filling the green farmland with sand to build the foundation.
CHEA SOPHAT: I have nothing now to give my children when I get old, because they grabbed my land and they offer me just 10 percent, so it’s really unjust.
KIRA KAY: Chea Sophat says he’s one of 200 landowners told they will be given new plots of farmland elsewhere, but only one tenth of the size they currently own. Families whose houses will be destroyed were offered apartments in the new project. Chea Sophat now leads protests in front of the Cambodian Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office, demanding a fair negotiation. He says he and his neighbors are willing to part with half their land.
CHEA SOPHAT: If they want the remaining 50 percent, a real estate firm should evaluate the land and then we can negotiate based on fair market price.
KIRA KAY: Sensing this groundswell of activism, Cambodia’s Prime Minister has increased the power and efforts of the land ministry. Land Ministry official Seng Loth says the government has issued four-and-a-half million land titles to citizens to formalize their ownership…and has two-and-a half-million left to go.
SENG LOTH: The government has a very strong will to settle these disputes, to lighten the suffering of the people. And we are confident that Cambodia will, in the very near future, achieve social harmony, as land conflicts sharply drop.
KIRA KAY: The government is also now mediating some negotiations between the companies and the citizens they evicted, like those rural villagers displaced by the sugar plantation. But Seng Loth urges them to be realistic.
SENG LOTH: The villagers demand what they think they deserve while the company has offered only what it can afford. So it is necessary for the two parties to meet halfway.
KIRA KAY: On their most recent trip to the capital, the sugar plantation families were offered a settlement brokered by the ministry: $2,500 each: less than a quarter of their estimated lost income over a decade.
They were also offered new, smaller plots of land about six miles from where they live. 73 Of the 175 families took the deal, some saying they saw no better option. But the rest, like Phav Nhoeung, declined, saying the new land is too far from their homes to successfully farm.
PHAV NHOEUNG: We cannot give up and stop fighting because we rely on the land. If there is no land, there is no life.