Under the shady trees in the park opposite the National Assembly, an unlikely band of protesters has been gathering—hushing infants on ragged tarpaulins, napping in hammocks strung between trees and cooking meager dinners on makeshift stoves.
The park has in recent years become the last stop for villagers from across the country, all hoping that Prime Minister Hun Sen can find a solution to land disputes they say have left them homeless and desperate.
Sok Chan is one of the most recent arrivals, having landed in the park just over a week ago, after his home and plantation in Kompong Speu province’s Oral district were flattened, he said, in a land dispute involving RCAF officials.
He said he was not surprised to find himself living among others from far-flung regions including Sihanoukville, Oddar Meanchey and Battambang provinces.
“It looks like we all have the same problem,” Sok Chan said. “Land dispute is a very serious issue all over the country. The farmer has no land to farm and no house to live in,” he said.
Like many others in the park, he brought nothing with him: no mosquito net and no mat to sleep on.
For these people, coming to Phnom Penh was a high-stake gamble. They arrived with little and spent it all. Now, they say, they cannot leave without a solution.
Tet Sophat, a farmer from Ta Kruok village, Treng commune, in Battambang province’s Ratanak Mondol district, said he arrived in the park on Jan 1 with a handful of riel, but now does not even have enough for the trip home.
He made the trip with his wife, his daughter and 67 other families who crowded into pickup trucks to come here together, after their homes were destroyed in a land dispute that pitted 102 families against border soldiers, he said.
“Some of them went back to try to find work after they ran out of money, but 20 families still stay,” Tet Sophat said. “When they go back, they will work clearing land on other people’s farms—just day labor. “
Like 85 percent of Cambodians, Tet Sophat is a subsistence farmer and his land, which he had farmed since 1997, was his lifeblood.
So he stays, waiting for a solution and worrying about the safety of his young daughter.
“We are worried about security, so we cannot sleep. If we have our problem solved, we will leave here in five minutes: Five minutes, and everyone will be gone,” Tet Sophat said.
Until then, around 300 people sleep in the park on any given night, protesters say, carpeting the ground with their mats and tarpaulins.
And these represent only a fraction of those involved in the 1,551 land disputes that are currently pending, according to a database being compiled by NGO Forum.
The 2001 Land Law created cadastral commissions to manage many of these complaints. From their establishment in 2003 to the end of 2004, more than 2,000 disputes were reported to the commissions, according to the 2005 UN Development Program report “Pathways to Justice.” But only a quarter of those were resolved.
Community Legal Education Center lawyers said these commissions have poor capacity to resolve large-scale disputes, because they lack the human resources, budget and equipment to survey land and the authority to issue summonses.
The Ministry of Land Management is also working in concert with international development agencies to systematically register all of Cambodia’s land, thereby, they hope, putting an end to such land disputes.
So far, the registration has reached 11 provinces, and the land management administration hopes to issue a million land certificates by 2007, the department’s general director Lim Voan said.
But 80 percent of the country’s land is still unregistered and untitled, according to the UNDP report. CLEC lawyers noted that these expanses of unregistered land are currently creating an incentive for land grabbers to take advantage of the system and peoples’ insecure land rights.
So protesters keep coming to this park in Phnom Penh, following rumors of others’ successes.
However, lawmakers have little ability to aid protesters on their doorstep, said Chan Ven, deputy secretary-general of the National Assembly. But there were occasional successes, and the assembly’s commission on protection of human rights is also checking on several land disputes, he said.
Among those losing hope are a neighborhood of protesters from Sihanoukville’s Ochateal beach who have already been camping in the park for a month.
This is not their first time here: In February 2005, they thought they had reached a solution to their land dispute, when they left Phnom Penh armed with a Sihanoukville Municipal Court order allowing them to return to the 12 hectares some 131 families had shared since 1985.
But they say they were forcibly evicted upon their return, and now the families are back once again. They say they are resigned to a life of day labor at construction sites and waiting for the next delivery of rice from a few local NGOs.
In the meantime, they and others write letters to the ministries of Interior, Defense, Land Management and Justice, to the prime minister’s cabinet, to vacationing parliamentarians and to the courts.
They write to anyone who might be able to overrule local officials, who they feel have uniformly sided against them.
“In some cases, people have no faith in local authorities to solve their disputes,” CLEC attorney adviser Henry Hwang said. “In big disputes with powerful interests, people at the village level either don’t know what to do or they don’t trust the courts to be fair.”
Mostly, they say, authorities have offered little help.
Still, Hul Manith, a seller of second-hand clothes who has become the Sihanoukville group’s spokesperson, said she has begun to receive some responses to her pleas.
Hul Manith believes the law is on her side and that it will prevail. “We lived there since 1985,” she said. “If what we are doing violates the law, I think all of us would be in jail already.”