Land theft, or the involuntary eviction of people from their homes, is a far too common occurrence for many poor people in Cambodia.
Land evictions: a daily occurrence for many in Cambodia
Land theft victims feel abandoned
Land theft is when people are forced to leave their land and sometimes even give up their homes because influential people want to use their land for other purposes. Land theft occurs both in rural areas and in cities. Land is the only asset that many poor people have, and a means of generating income. When the poor lose their land or their homes, they also lose their opportunities for income and financial security.
Many methods are used to drive people from their homes; deception or pressure has been used to get people to sell their land at low prices. Some are evicted violently, often by the military or the police.
People who have been evicted are often transported far from their homes, and are dumped on common land somewhere without water, sanitation or electricity.
A woman from Dey Krahorm, a slum area in central Phnom Penh from where thousands of dwellers have been relocated, says:
“We’re like abandoned children. We have no mothers, no fathers, nobody to look after us. The only help we get is from NGOs in the area.”
Common land lacking water, sanitation and electricity where people who have been forced to leave their homes are relocated. [Photo: Charlotta Bredberg]
Cambodia needs independent judicial system
Cambodia has laws concerning land rights. One law states that people who have lived at the same place for more than five years before the new land laws were adopted in 2001 have the right to receive valid title deeds for their land. Nevertheless, many of those fulfilling that requirement are evicted. Part of the problem is that distributing the title deeds is a slow and sometimes corrupt process, which is why many people have still not received the papers they need to prove that they own their land.
Martina Fors, who is responsible for support to NGOs that work for human rights in Cambodia, says: “There are many factors; one of them is the judicial system. The Cambodian courts are not independent. People who have money and contacts usually win court cases, regardless of the evidence. This makes it hard or impossible for poor people to demand their rights when they’ve been evicted.
“The courts can’t ensure that the laws are followed and the legal system is a corrupt institution. The international donors and human rights organizations have an important role to play. We can ensure that the voice of the poor people is heard, and have a dialogue with the government to make sure that the laws of the country are followed.”
Sida is supporting local human rights organizations, LICADHO and ADHOC. Both organizations agree that the international community has an important role to play in securing human rights in Cambodia. They want donors such as Sida to pressure the government to stop forced evictions and to follow the national land laws. They want help in establishing a fair and independent legal system, and introduce measures against corrupt police officers and public prosecutors who arrest and initiate legal proceedings against individuals without evidence.
Cambodia can learn from experiences in the region
“Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, and the Cambodian government faces major challenges regarding the country’s development,” Fors says. “I believe it’s important to learn from other countries’ situations. Now that Southeast Asia is continuing to grow stronger as a region, through ASEAN for example, issues that concern human rights and liability are becoming all the more important.”
Human rights workers live dangerously
One of the biggest challenges in strengthening human rights is that the civil society in Cambodia is relatively new and that many of the human rights organizations still have limited capacity. LICADHO is doing an impressive job examining and reporting crimes against human rights. Like their colleagues at ADHOC, they provide legal aid to poor people in land conflicts. These organizations are in need of help to be able to continue their work.
It is important to remember that NGO workers in Cambodia have a high-risk job, living in constant fear of being prosecuted for the work they do.
Li Fung, who works with human rights at the UN office UNCHCR in Cambodia, says: “It’s important that the legal system protects those who work for human rights, such as NGO workers, lawyers and journalists, so that they can continue defending land rights.
“Civil society is growing stronger and is benefitting from contacts and exchanges with similar organizations in the region. Building networks with other human rights organizations and donors gives them the opportunity to strengthen their work and exchange experiences.”
Fors says: “There is still a lot of work to do, but many improvements have been made. People in rural areas have become more involved in decisions that concern them because decisive power has been decentralized and decisions are now made at the local level. Another breakthrough is that elections in Cambodia now occur without violence, which wasn’t the case before.”
- 80 per cent of Cambodia’s population lives in rural areas
- 2–3 per cent of Cambodia’s population was landless in 1999
- In 2007, the number of landless people had increased to 25 per cent
- In 2004, the poorest 40 per cent of Cambodians owned 5.4 per cent of the land
- Also in 2004, the wealthiest 20 per cent of Cambodia’s population owned 70 per cent of the land.