Last year, Tuan Sary started to build a home on land in Kampot province that his family has farmed for generations. In December, a military commander filed a court complaint saying Tuan Sary was building on land the general had owned since 1989.
Today, a judge in Kampot province court is expected to rule on a case nearly 200 other families in the area are watching carefully. About 48 people from Tuan Sary’s village, Trapeang Thmar, protested in front of the National Assembly on Jan 21, saying they feared their property was next.
The case and the protest are one of countless land disputes clogging courts, many of which involve the military, lawyers said. In order to start solving the problem, the government is currently working on revising the 1992 land law, but critics this week said a draft of the law at the Council of Ministers will not adequately address the avalanche of land disputes facing Cambodia’s courts.
“The…revised land law does not go far enough to stem the sale of public property to officials for their private benefit or bring secure title to the millions of Cambodians without land rights,” a statement from the Cambodian Bar Association said.
The lawyers’ group, along with Oxfam’s Cambodian Land Study Project, sent a letter to the Council of Ministers earlier this month with suggested additions for the land law. They include clarifying the definition of public property, providing communal land titles for indigenous peoples and requiring environmental assessments before granting concessions to businesses .
“The way that [parts of] the law are written, there seems to be the possibility that there is a motive behind it…to make it loose so they can be flexible in granting concessions,” said Bar Association President Ang Eng Thong.
International and local NGOs from rights groups and legal aid organizations met Thursday to prepare even more detailed suggestions about the land law.
Van Lim, the director of the land title department, said he is working on preparing comments for the Council of Ministers that incorporate suggestions from both NGOs and an adviser from the Asian Development Bank.
An ADB deadline on the land law has been pushed back several times while the government continues hammering out the law, Van Lim said. The latest deadline for the law to be passed in order to complete an ADB agricultural loan is mid-March. In late October, the “concept to pass the law” was approved in the Council of Ministers, Van Lim said.
In Cambodia, figuring out who owns what land is a complicated part of the legal process. Besides being forced out of their homes by the Khmer Rouge, many Cambodians have fled and fought over sections of land for years.
In Kampot, both sides have 1989 documents showing they have “temporary possession” of the disputed plot. The farmers’ lawyers contended in court last Friday the commander’s papers were fake. As part of a 1996 land title application, a surveyor took thumbprints from neighbors to verify the plot of land belonged to local commander Meach Mann. The neighbors testified they never printed the documents.
The commander denied his papers were fake, Legal Aid of Cambodia lawyers said. Meach Mann could not be reached.
At next week’s Consultative Group meeting, the government is asking for $6.1 million to help measure, map and give titles to land. But it is not just the law that matters but willingness at top levels to see the law is carried out.
“We have a law but we cannot enforce it well,” said Legal Aid of Cambodia lawyer Yim Simen. “So rich people and people with power can do anything.”