Fourteen Mondolkiri province villagers came to Phnom Penh on June 11 with their village elders—pierced and dressed in traditional garb—in tow to prove that they are in fact ethnic minority Phnong, as if establishing this first, simple fact might help them win the more complex arguments over what land belongs to whom.
By July 26, their faith that evidence might work in their favor had dimmed considerably.
“I have zero hope,” said Mob Kret, one of three village representatives embroiled in three separate land dispute cases in Mondolkiri province. “The reason is simple: No one respects the law. They think only about money. I don’t have any hope because I don’t have any money. I have no money to bribe anyone.”
Mob Kret and his fellow villagers are part of a common tide of desperation that flows into Phnom Penh, as people from across the country try to press their land cases in the capital, often to little effect. Even as villagers like Mob Kret are quickly losing faith in the systems meant to help them, experts say that property rights and equitable systems of dispute resolution will be crucial building blocks for Cambodia’s future prosperity.
Already, prosperity and a population boom have aggravated land conflicts in Cambodia. Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said in an interview earlier this year that in 1975, Cambodia had 6 million people and 2 million hectares of cultivated land. Today, the nation has 14 million people, and still just 2 million hectares of cultivated land, he said. “Now land is an asset,” he said.
But Khieu Kanharith said Sunday that villagers who come to Phnom Penh are usually more interested in political or financial gain than justice. Local systems of dispute resolution are far more effective, he added.
“Some of the people who are behind the village representatives just want to defame the government for their political purposes. Those who come to Phnom Penh come because they want a sightseeing tour. They can make money, too,” Khieu Kanharith said.
The Mondolkiri villagers insist they are losing money, not making it, and that theirs is a fight for something quite close to life itself: land and the graves of their ancestors.
“The land is a life and death issue,” community representative Svan Bob said. “We would sacrifice our lives to fight back for our land.”
Rights group Licadho received nearly 15,300 complaints over land and natural resource conflicts last year, according the group’s 2006 annual report. And, Licadho president Kek Galabru said, since Licadho only has a dozen offices across the country, those numbers likely under-represent the extent of the problem.
Speaking to reporters Sunday, World Bank President Robert Zoellick emphasized the importance of land rights, not just for Cambodian people, but also for the economic future of the nation itself.
“Land titling is at the heart of a strategy to overcome poverty and spread the benefits of a growing economy,” he said in prepared remarks. “We want to work to accelerate this titling of land and to ensure that efforts are being made to reach the poorest and those most likely to be dispossessed of their lands, such as ethnic minorities.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen himself declared war on land grabbers earlier this year, not long before April’s commune elections.
But how those goals become—or do not become—reality is a messy business.
All told, the three Mondolkiri province disputes involve 93 Phnong families who claim that their land—once home to their ancestors, rice fields and fruit plantations—has been illegally seized by powerful local officials, all of whom deny wrongdoing.
Mob Kret represents 19 families who allege that Keo Sarann, the deputy commander in chief of RCAF’s engineering brigade 179, in 2003 “borrowed” 50 hectares of their land in Sen Monorom district’s Romnea commune and never gave it back.
Keo Sarann denies all wrongdoing. “I don’t own land that was encroached on,” he said before declining to answer further questions.
Chhim Mob represents 28 families who accuse Long Vibol, the provincial director of the Cambodian Red Cross in Mondolkiri province, of encroaching on a swath of Phnong burial ground, also in Romnea commune.
“All the graveyards are gone,” Chhim Mob said, claiming that workers actually disinterred the bones from the burial sites.
Long Vibol denies wrongdoing. “I don’t own any land within a disputed area,” he said, adding that villagers had been “incited”—by whom he would not say—to file a complaint against him.
Svan Bob represents 46 Soksan commune families who claim that Men Soveth, the Koh Nhek district governor, and Nharang Chan, a provincial deputy governor, conspired to strip them of 300 hectares of their land.
Men Soveth also denied wrongdoing. He said that he and Nharang Chan were working together to stop villagers from encroaching on protected land. “If I allowed them to cut the trees, officials would have accused me of working with the villagers to destroy the forest,” he said. The land in question, he added, was abandoned by six Phnong families decades ago, during King Norodom Sihanouk’s reign, and now the descendants of those families have no right to claim it.
During their weeks in Phnom Penh, villagers said they visited the Ministry of Land Management 10 times; stopped by the National Assembly, the National Land Dispute Authority office, and the Interior and Defense ministries; and also toured the offices of rights groups Licadho and Adhoc and the NGO Forum in an effort to get their cases addressed.
Much to their dismay, all their lobbying efforts resulted in a letter from Ministry of Land Management Secretary of State Chhan Saphan referring the disputes back to the Mondolkiri provincial governor and the provincial department of land management.
Svan Bob said that he has lost faith in local systems of dispute resolution. “We have tried all the provincial authorities and none will even stamp the documents to say they received them. They are so afraid of the powerful people,” he claimed.
Chhan Saphan could not be reached for comment Sunday.
When not lobbying for their cause, the villagers hung out in the bare office of the Human Rights and Community Development Organization in Phnom Penh’s Chamkar Mon district, which is not much more than a room with a broken fan and a hard wood table.
For a while, it looked like the villagers might end up stranded in that little room for want of funds. They had taken up a collection before heading for Phnom Penh—Svan Bob said they raised about $2,000, and that some families sold their livestock to fund the trip—but that money didn’t last long. Licadho and NGO Forum eventually stepped in with $60, and the group was able to return to Mondolkiri province on July 29th.
The day after returning home, villagers said they submitted their complaints to the provincial land management department. Mob Kret said the authorities promised to investigate the cases within four days.
Monday, then Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday came and went.
Ben Ren, director of Mondolkiri province’s land management department, acknowledged that he had received the complaints but said bad weather had prevented him from launching an investigation.
“It has been raining,” he said Sunday. “When the rain stops we will work on the case.”
He maintained that the Phnong have encroached on state land in an effort to profit from rising land prices, but promised to resolve the disputes fairly.
“If the land belongs to the people, I will return it. But if not, I will confiscate the land,” Ben Ren said.
Mob Kret said Sunday that he has yet to hear from officials.
“I have only 50 percent hope,” he said. “Now we must wait.”