Although government officials have hailed the recent passage of a new land law as a tool to end land-grabbing in Cambodia, some human rights observers say it still leaves many questions unanswered.
“This law will serve the people and give them better lives. It will guarantee and protect land rights and maintain order in society,” Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction official Thou Thon said.
“The law is acceptable. But the question is whether the government has the political will and dares to face these serious issues or not at this time,” said Adhoc general director Thun Saray.
The 2001 land law was years in the making. Along with the Khmer Rouge tribunal and the scheduling of commune elections, a land law was one of three pieces of legislation the government promised donors would pass before the donors meeting last June. The law passed soon after the donors met.
Legislation adopted in 1989 and 1992 established that a person could own land after occupying it for five years. But the procedure to register claims was confusing, opening the door to land grabbing, corruption and sometimes violence.
The newly passed law attempts to eliminate ownership by occupation. Land will now be surveyed and a titling project begun to structure land registration. Officials say it may take 15 years to finish.
In the meantime, both Thou Thon and Lim Voan, deputy director general for the land title department at the ministry, said penalties in the new law are so severe they will deter land grabbing. The law calls for fines up to $12,000 and prison terms ranging from two months to 15 years. Authorities who have jurisdiction on territory where land grabbing takes place, and officials who illegally issue land titles, are liable under the law, officials say.
“This law is tough and it will decrease anarchy and land grabbing,” said Lim Voan.
What the law doesn’t address are thousands of pending land-grabbing cases. Adhoc received 164 cases last year alone, involving dozens of families in Kompong Cham, Battambang, Bantey Meanchey, Kompong Speu and Kampot provinces.
“Powerful people took the land. Will the government dare take it back from them? That is the issue,” Thun Saray said.
Legal Aid of Cambodia said it has received a case from the Poipet area involving 903 families living on 71 hectares of land that high-ranking government officials are said to own.
“When we checked, those top officials said they did not have land there. The new law is good, but the enforcement of the law will be different from the theory,” a Legal Aid representative said.
In advance of the law’s passage, land speculators have been busy in Cambodia, driving prices up in some areas. Another problem is land hoarding. Speculators buy land, but leave it idle, while poor families could put it to better use.
“If the government can solve this problem, they will have land to divide among real landless people,” Thun Saray said.
The new law addresses this issue. Land concessions granted before the new law passed will be canceled if the land has not been used for a year and the owner cannot give a reasonable explanation. In addition, the government will levy a tax ranging from 2 percent to 4 percent tax on unused land when it is sold.
Land law supporters say it will make a huge impact, but caution it will take time.
“The goal of the law is to provide land to landless people,” land title department director general Sek Setha said. “But it will take a long time to assess people’s needs.”