The Finance Ministry is drafting a law establishing a government committee empowered to confiscate land from inhabitants of “anarchic locations” without compensating them for their land, according to officials and a copy of the draft.
NGO workers expressed concern Monday that if passed, the law could override the Land Law, which states that people have a right to their land if they have lived on it for more than five years, providing they were on it prior to the law’s 2001 adoption. And some expressed concern that the legislation will bring a veneer of legitimacy to Cambodia’s rampant land-grabbing.
The draft land expropriation law outlines what projects are considered to be in the public interest, the procedures for confiscating land and how compensation will be awarded in eviction cases.
Article 28 of the draft states that people living in “anarchic locations” or in slum communities on public land will be entitled to unspecified damages and payment for the cost of relocation, but not for compensation for their land.
Yeng Virak, director of the Community Legal Education Center, said he was concerned by the article.
“There are people who have cultivated their area for more than five years, and I am concerned this will override the Land Law…. It’s not just relocation costs that people need to get,” he said.
An expropriations committee established to handle land confiscations will be comprised of provincial and municipal representatives, the Ministry of Finance, the Council of Ministers and the Ministry of Land Management, according to the draft.
Under the proposed legislation, the public interest may require land for railways, roads, bridges and airports, as well as roads, parking lots, gardens and squares, the draft states.
Public interest may also require land for gas or oil networks, sewers, urban water supply systems and cemeteries, the law adds. Schools and stadiums are also included.
Cambodian authorities came under fire last year after thousands of people were forcibly evicted from central Phnom Penh and dumped in a squalid relocation site on the outskirts of the city.
In August, New-York based Human Rights Watch called on the government to halt the evictions, stating that they violate national and international law.
Yeng Virak said he was concerned that definitions of public interest in the draft law could be bent so that any land could be confiscated.
“[The draft law] will remove people from whatever area the government wants to use,” he said. “Everywhere can be subject to project development for so-called public interests.”
Hang Chuon Naron, secretary-general of the Finance Ministry, said his ministry was working on the draft, but declined to comment as he had not seen it.
Ouk Rabun, secretary of state for the Finance Ministry, confirmed that his ministry was working on the draft but declined further comment. Prak Sokhon, secretary of state for the Council of Ministers, said he was also unaware of the law.
Mann Chhoeun, deputy Phnom Penh governor, said he was also unaware of the law. However, he added that people are not supposed to be living in parks, unsanitary areas, and on public land, and that they can legitimately be evicted from such places.
“If they go and live in these places, there will be problems…. [I] have not seen any countries that allow that,” he said.
Theary Seng, executive director of the Center for Social Development, said any committee established to decide when to confiscate land should be independent of the government.
“This is an issue where there is potential for collusion with officials and companies,” she said.