Despite PM’s Attack, Rainsy Pushes Plan to Seize Land

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy over the weekend again raised the prospect that a future CNRP government may oversee forced redistributions of land from the rich to the poor in order to correct cases of land-grabbing under Prime Minister Hun Sen’s reign.

Mr. Hun Sen last week suggested the CNRP could stoke civil war by seizing land from its “class enemies” if it wins the 2018 national election. But Mr. Rainsy replied that any such seizures of stolen land would only be ordered by an independent tribunal.

Speaking at ​a public forum in Kompong Cham province’s Batheay district on Saturday, Mr. Rainsy promised that anyone who has fallen victim to the rampant land-grabbing under Mr. Hun Sen’s watch would receive their land back under his premiership.

“[The CNRP will] provide justice to the victims, and gather the lands that the companies and tycoons have robbed and stolen from people to give them back to the former owners,” he said.

Mr. Rainsy rejected the notion that such land seizures could lead to war between ostensibly CPP-aligned tycoons and a CNRP government.

“We do not consider any Khmer as the enemy, and this is the CNRP’s policy. Therefore, as we do not consider anybody as an enemy, we do not have any enemies, and there will be no war,” Mr. Rainsy said.

“How can we make war? With who? Because we have no enemies.”

In his speech last week, Mr. Hun Sen also suggested the CNRP’s apparent hostility toward Vietnam, which has surfaced in the party’s campaign to end border incursions, could create war.

Mr. Rainsy rejected that claim in his speech too, saying a CNRP government would only seek restitutions of territory through diplomacy and international pressure.

“We must dig in and remind the international community to use their influence through diplomacy, politics and economics to make the countries that swallow our territory give it back to Cambodia through peaceful means,” Mr. Rainsy said.

CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said Sunday that Mr. Hun Sen’s description of tycoons as the CNRP’s enemies was accurate, even if Mr. Rainsy wanted to depict the party as having no hostilities toward private-sector power brokers.

“[Mr. Rainsy] considers all tycoons and investors as an enemy of the CNRP because when the CNRP rules the country, the CNRP will scrap all agreements and investment cooperation and confiscate land from the rich to give to the poor,” Mr. Eysan said.

“This is no different to the policies of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. Secondly, he has narrow-minded nationalism and treats neighboring countries like enemies,” the CPP spokesman added.

“These key reasons will create war. It’s not the CPP who will cause war if the CPP loses the vote.”

Mr. Hun Sen was himself a Khmer Rouge military officer before defecting in 1978, and later served as head of the 1980s communist regime. Mr. Rainsy was an investment banker in France before entering Cambodian politics in the late 1980s with the royalist Funcinpec party.

In an interview last week, the opposition leader said Mr. Hun Sen’s claims that CNRP policies could lead to war are “extremist” and said any seizures of land from tycoons would only be carried out with due process.

“This would be the work for an independent tribunal dealing with land stolen from the poor, and there could be investigations in the future, conducted by an independent tribunal,” Mr. Rainsy said.

“We would leave it to the justice system.”

Stephen Higgins, managing partner at corporate consultancy firm Mekong Strategic Partners, said in an email that Mr. Rainsy’s proposals for a land tribunal could create fears for investors if it appears the tribunal’s scope would be broad.

“For investors, one of the key things they look for is protection of property rights,” Mr. Higgins said.

“If they propose to confiscate the land, even when it has been onsold in good faith to other investors, that would be a major negative for the investment climate,” he added.

“If land that was seized improperly has not been onsold, then I don’t think anyone will be too concerned about it being confiscated other than the parties directly involved.”

John Humphreys, director of the Professional Research Institute for Management and Economics, said that property rights in Cambodia already appear precarious to those looking to invest here.

“If the CNRP threaten to undermine property rights or dramatically change the rules then it may…lower economic growth. On the other hand, if the CNRP announce a detailed and pragmatic land reform policy that is clearly understood, then it may have no impact on political risk,” Mr. Humphreys said.

“Carefully managed and moderate land reform does not necessarily scare investors, and may have a positive impact in the long term,” he said. “In this situation, it is very important that the CNRP present a detailed policy as soon as possible to reduce uncertainty.”

By raising the prospect of unintended consequences coming from a 2018 CNRP victory, Mr. Hun Sen has been playing to his strengths, said Ou Virak, founder of the Future Forum political consultancy.

“Hun Sen is playing CPP politics 101,” Mr. Virak said. “In 2013, he managed to scare some moderate people from wanting change. The message of voting for change but not getting the change you wanted, and instead getting war, worked in some sense.”

Yet Mr. Virak said it was unclear whether a CNRP tribunal to address land-grabbing could actually cause damage—either to peace or Cambodia’s economy.

“We do not know how far such a tribunal would go. And the thing is, there are not a lot of businesses in Cambodia. We don’t have many investors anyway.”

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