Land Dispute in Cambodia and China’s investments

By Sun Narin

Land dispute has become a heat issue in the world’s developing countries. As the example, land conflict in India has become contentious for the past five years, impinging on a vast part of the country~ West Bengal, Orissa, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Mumbai and Gujarat. Several people have died in the protests against land acquisition and inadequate compensation, notably in Noida in March-April. Last September, the Allahabad High Court gave a landmark judgment against forced eviction of farmers.

This does not happen only in India, but also in the provinces across a developing Cambodia for a long time, which experienced the mass killings of more than 1.7 million during the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979).

Land dispute is a persistent issue in Cambodia, causing hundreds of thousands of people being affected and evicted. The protesters have been facing with beating, arresting and imprisoning. Land-grabbed victims have never received any solution from the government, which results in protests from people to ask for resolution. A lot of local high-ranking officials, tycoons and foreign investors, especially from China, have been investing in the huge amount of economic land provided by the government.

“I asked for solution from all level of authorities many times, but they have not taken any actions,” said Mr Un Sony (34), a Cambodian Battambang provincial villager whose land has been grabbed since 2006. He added that: “All the local authorities conspire with grabbers and the government is not responsible and responsive to people.”

Since Cambodia’s government had policy of providing economic forests and land concession to investors to develop the area, land dispute has increased rapidly from year to year.

According to the NGO Forum on Cambodia’s report, 236-land dispute cases occurred in 2009 and 81 cases happened in the five months early 2010. Hundreds of cases are in court’s hand and now the people have still facing the problem.

Mr Chan Soveth, Adhoc’s human rights program officer in Cambodia, said: “Land dispute is pertaining to powerful and political people and the court is also under the pressure of government,” adding that local authorities were not provided with enough power to deal with the dispute.

Due to the fact that the cases have not been solved and no fair solution were given by the local authority, the victims decided to protest in Phnom Penh for government’s help, especially premier Hun Sen.

“It is not easy to solve land dispute since it is large-scale. We have to spend much time studying the problem behind,” said Mrs Nonn Pheany, spokesman of the Land Ministry. She said that the victims and grabbers did not understand each other and respect law and government has pity on people, though they settle on state land.  “Government used compromising and understanding policy to solve land dispute. Land dispute can be solved, but it cannot if politics is behind,” she added.

A lot of residents were forcibly evicted and relocated to the outskirts of the city without suitable compensation such as people from Sambok Chab and Dey Krahorm where existed land dispute, facing the difficulties.

Land dispute is a considering problem facing the government since a lot of people are affected. Local Human Rights (LICADHO) report for May 2009 says that more than a quarter of a million people have been affected by land-grabbing and forced evictions since 2003.

Until April 2010, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) requests to the Royal government of Cambodia for contract cancelation of 41 companies with total land area of 379,034 ha. At the present, there have been 85 contracted and validated companies with total land area of 956,690 ha located in 16 provinces.

Now China has become the largest investors on land and the Cambodia’s government always provides a lot of land for Chinese companies to develop. According to the official China News Agency, China has become one of the biggest investors in Cambodia, with 3,016 Chinese companies making cumulative investments of US$1.58 billion to the end of 2007. Cambodia’s people are now aware that every land conflict is related to China.

As the example, the Cambodian government granted a Mondulkiri forest concession of 200,000 hectares – 20 times the legal limit – acquired secretly by Pheapimex, an ethnic-Chinese owned Cambodian conglomerate with close ties to Prime Minister Hun Sen. Pheapimex formed a joint venture with China’s Wuzhishan plantation firm to exploit the region, displacing indigenous minority people who rely on the forests for their traditional livelihoods. After that, the government continued providing the 315,028-hectare to Pheapimex , which spans Kampong Chhnang and Pursat provinces. Hundreds of thousands of people stand to lose land, homes and important sources of income if the company proceeds with these plantations.

Pheapimex Group and other investment companies have been linked to a number of controversial logging and plantation projects across the country, according to the watchdog Global Witness.

The Boeung Kak development, owned by Sukako Inc which gained a 99-year lease of the land in the lakeside area covering 126.85 hectares to transfer the lakeside into a modern satellite city, has been the most often cited negative example of Chinese investment in Cambodia since 2006. All NGO reports and Western news articles talk about how Boeung Kak Lake has been given to a secretive Chinese company to develop, which has started to move residents out but then stalled amidst their opposition.

Son Chhay, an opposition Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker, said that China’s investors use economic promises to gain political clout in Cambodia, and never consider the adverse impacts of their investments on the developing country. He said that, in reality, Chinese

investments damage the Kingdom’s environment and fail to generate sustainable employment for the country’s labour force.

“Chinese investors are aggressive businesspeople who capitalise on Cambodia,” he said. “They are given special rights by the government”, which “invariably agrees with what [Chinese businesses] want”.

In October 2004, Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen, announced that his government’s policies aimed at “improved access to land and effective use of this resource crucial for promoting economic growth, generating employment, ensuring social equity and fairness, and strengthening effectiveness in the reforms, thus helping to reduce poverty and achieve sustainable development”. He added: “investments must be sound and have the participation of the local people in those communities”.

Before granting any land concessions in any location, Cambodia’s government must go to that area and investigate it, to make sure it is not affecting the land of the people, to make sure it is not affecting the environment”.