The Council of Ministers Friday passed the long-awaited draft land law and will soon send it to the National Assembly for approval—a move that Prime Minister Hun Sen called “a revolution” to bring order to property ownership confusion.
“It is a revolution done not by farmers but the government supporting farmers,” Hun Sen told ministers attending at the weekly meeting. “When the law is implemented properly, it would ensure farmers of land ownership and would help improve agricultural production.”
The 272-article law, written by government jurist Heng Vong Bunchhat with Asian Development Bank funds, is expected to improve the process of determining property rights and to reduce the number of land disputes plaguing the country, government officials and land advocates said.
A land law to address property ownership reform has been urged by the international donor community for years. Government officials have been meeting regularly with representatives from the donor community and NGOs about the draft law.
“This law is far better than any of old land laws,” said Janet King, country director for the University San Francisco’s law project, a contributor to the draft.
The draft law would ensure land title certificates to all private individuals and public entities and would enable parcels of land in any corner of the country to be registered under a land registry system managed by the Ministry of Land Management and Construction, Penn Thol, a government spokesman, said Friday.
He said the draft law dictates that ownership claimed before 1979 would be null and new occupants of properties who do not have formal ownership documents would be entitled to acquire them, Penn Thol said.
He said the law will help resolve land disputes, pointing out that many of the existing feuds arose when people who owned property before 1979 returned to their homes following years of war and found others occupying those lots.
Currently only 14 percent of the nation’s land is properly registered in the government system.
The draft also includes punishment for illegal land grabs and false registry, according to the statement from the council. The law states that a person who illegally confiscates land from individuals could be fined 500,000 riel ($130) to 45 million riel ($11,800), while officials issuing bogus land title certificates could be imprisoned for two months to five years in addition to paying the fines, according to the statement. Punishment for the same activities committed by military and police authorities could be tripled.
However, the law would not protect squatters’ rights to own state property such as river banks or train tracks. Penn Thol said families living on state property reserved for development should move when work begins.
The law also limits the amount of land the government can lease to a private business for a single project at 10,000 hectares.
Land Management Minister Im Chhun Lim said that the law would allow indigenous villagers to own the land in a collective way. He said the protection of cooperative land ownership for indigenous villagers and the restriction of concession are new concepts included in the land law.
Land advocates welcomed the government’s action.
“The law is not perfect but not bad,” said Ang Eng Thong, president of the Cambodia Bar Association, which has held regular meetings for two years about land law.
“We must send it to the National Assembly as soon as possible,” said Ang Eng Thong, arguing that having a good law now is better than waiting a perfect law for five more years. “If there is anything problematic, we could amend it later in accordance with the situation.”
The draft needs to be approved by the National Assembly, the Senate and the King. And the government is required to create many sub-decrees to effectively implement the law.
Also, the World Bank and other major donors are assessing the need of developing the national land title registration system, which would cost $100 million over 10 years.