An Australian supreme court justice visited Phnom Penh last week to train Cambodian judges and lawyers how to resolve disputes concerning the 2001 land law, a crucial element in implementing the new land title registration system.
“Without some proper system of land law that gives adequate security to investors, Cambodia is going to find it difficult for overseas companies to invest,” said Dean Mildren, a justice in the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory in Australia who is an expert on property law.
Land grabbing has plagued Cambodia since the Khmer Rouge abolished private property rights and destroyed all land maps, titles and other records in the late 1970s.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government passed laws in 1989 and 1992 declaring that a person could own land after occupying it for five years, though the confusing process for registering the land has led to many land disputes.
The land title registration system adopted under the 2001 land law seeks to eliminate land disputes and give legal security to landowners, something that has eluded them for decades.
In a seminar with judges and attorneys Thursday, sponsored by the Asian Development Bank, the East-West Management Institute Inc and the Ministry of Justice, Mildren explained the similarities between Australian land law and the new Cambodian system.
The 2001 land law, argued Mildren, adopts a land title registration system similar to Australia’s. Under this system, which may take decades before it is fully functioning, land ownership is recorded in a legally binding national register, Mildren said.
“The Royal Government has embarked on an ambitious and challenging undertaking to survey, demarcate and register all the land in the country,” Minister of Justice Uk Vithun told the seminar. “This process will take many years to be completed.”
During the first phase of the land title registration campaign, the government hopes to register one million parcels of land in 10 provinces and Phnom Penh over five years, according to Jouni Anttonen, who is part of a technical assistance team for Finnmap, a Finland-based company. The first phase costs $35 million and is being financed by the World Bank along with the governments of Cambodia, Finland, and Germany, Anttonen said.
“The project is ambitious but attainable,” Anttonen said.
So far, 84,000 parcels of land have been registered, mostly all under a pilot registration system that ended in 1997. Anttonen said he expects the land title registration system to begin in full force after the national elections on July 27. The land registration process in Thailand lasted 18 years, Anttonen said.
A subdecree passed in May 2002 mandated the creation of the National Cadastral Commission to settle as many land disputes as possible. The commission has yet to process many cases, however, because it is still waiting for the Ministry of Land Management to elaborate on the commission’s jurisdiction, according to George Cooper, a legal adviser to the Cadastral commission with GTZ, Germany’s development agency.
Once the Ministry of Land Management determines the Cadastral commission’s jurisdiction, Cooper said its leaders will meet with the Ministry of Justice to decide a date when provincial and municipal courts will no longer process land dispute cases, as they do now.
“The commission was set up with clear rules to ensure fairness, transparency and due process,” said Cooper. “It will need a lot of help in practice. We’ll see in the near future if it’s a fair system.”
The same subdecree that created the Cadastral commission also outlined the land registration process. Every parcel of land is visited by a registration team, which then demarcates the land boundaries and issues the land title, according to Anttonen. Owners of neighboring parcels are present during the process and agree on the boundaries, Anttonen said.
Information on the land parcels is made publicly available for 30 days, after which Anttonen said all undisputed land is registered.
Though the registration process is still in its early stages, a human rights group monitoring the land registration process has received reports of officials abusing the process.
In Sihanoukville, a family living on the land for more than five years claimed that government officials registered their land without informing them that the land needed to be registered, according to Thun Saray, director of the human rights group Adhoc. When the residents learned they no longer owned the land according to the register, Thun Saray said, the 30-day period to dispute land claims had expired.
Public information concerning the registration system is an integral part of the subdecree, said Anttonen, and public information meetings have been held in villages where land is being registered. Anttonen has not heard any complaints about the process and said residents, eager to receive the security of a land title, have welcomed the registration teams.
“The process is simple, cheap, modern, accurate and the legal framework is there,” said Anttonen. “Everything is in place. I am confident things will run smoothly after the election.”