After two days of heated debate, the National Assembly yesterday passed the draft law on expropriation, a law critics fear will do little to stem arbitrary land grabs.
“This law protects people when the state confiscates the rightful ownership from people,” CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun said of the draft, which allows the government to seize private property for public projects. “The Cambodian People’s Party is protecting the people.”
During the debate, opposition lawmakers argued that the law, which was voted in by 76 of the 100 lawmakers present, was against the nation’s interest and undemocratic.
“There are a lot of gaps about the rights of people’s participation in the development of the country,” SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua told the Assembly.
According to the draft, an unspecified independent committee or an agent of its choice will determine the market value of properties expropriated by the government.
“Where is the independence of a committee that confiscates legal property and decides the value of the property?” Ms Sochua asked.
Ms Sochua went on to note a provision in the law that stipulates a fine of up to $500 or a year in prison for anyone found to “hinder the implementation” of an expropriation order. Ms Sochua worried the government would wield that provision against opposition lawmakers merely for visiting constituents embroiled in land disputes.
CPP lawmaker Som Kimsuor countered that the punitive measures were necessary.
“I completely support the article about punishment,” she said. “The expropriation law is to confiscate the rightful ownership because we need to develop the country, the whole society, for the interest of all people.”
Nationalist Party lawmaker You Hockry argued that the consultation process outlined in the law should include property owners and not just community leaders.
“Can we put [in the draft] that it’s a consultation with the rightful owner?” Mr Hockry asked.
Midway through yesterday’s session, Ouk Rabun, Finance Ministry Secretary of State and one of the drafters of the law, told opposition lawmakers that no changes would be made to the draft.
He said property owners would always be allowed to participate in the consultation process, even though there is no mention of that in the law.
“When removing rightful ownership, the owners are the first ones to be talked to,” he told the Assembly.
Opponents to the law have also complained that the law fails to cover homeowners with possession rights under the country’s Land Law but not legal title.
SRP lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang raised the example of communities around Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak lake, which the government has deemed illegal settlements even though residents have lived there since the 1980s.
“Like the case at Boeng Kak, up until now, there has been no consultation with the residents. But city hall has been playing the replacement role for the investment company,” he said. “What’s the national interest?”
Mr Vun, the CPP lawmaker, accused opposition lawmakers, particularly those of the SRP, of purposely trying to obstruct the passing of the law.
“The Constitution allows the possibility for the state to confiscate private property,” he said. “His Excellency [SRP President] Sam Rainsy was a member of the working group of the Constitution, so it means that he had agreed to have the state confiscate rightful ownership.”
Opponents have largely agreed with the general aim of the law—to restrict land expropriations to the public and national interest—but worried that the law’s broad and vague language leaves it open to misuse.
A list of projects in Chapter 1 that the law could cover, for example, ends with a final line that permits any expropriation “in accordance with the determination made by the government.”
“We are worried because it’s too broad and it gives absolute power to the government to expropriate anything they want,” said Bunn Rachana, a monitor for the Housing Rights Task Force.
The HRTF was among 11 NGOs that handed the National Assembly a list of recommended changes to the law two weeks ago.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap, chairman of the Assembly’s economy, finance, banking and audits commission, said by telephone yesterday that he expected the law to take effect by late January, once it clears the Senate and King Norodom Sihamoni.
Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said he was not surprised the assembly took no heed of the NGOs’ recommended changes since the real debate had already taken place in Mr Yeap’s audit commission.
“This [commission], only the ruling party is the member,” he said. “The opposition has no members…so they have not chance to debate this law.”
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)