Revised Land Law Set for Review by Cabinet

After more than a year of revision and translation, the long-awaited proposed new land law is finally ready to be reviewed by the Council of Ministers, government officials said this week.

Sun Soeun, cabinet director of the Ministry of Land Manage­ment and Construction, said the latest 272-article version would ensure a dramatic improvement in the process of determining property rights, a process currently marked by an escalating number of land disputes.

“This is one of the best laws in Cambodia,” said Sun Soeun, adding the revamped draft incorporated suggestions from NGOs and UN organizations. “If we don’t have a strong law [on land], we’re not able to solve any of the land disputes we have seen.”

The proposed law defines what is state property and what is private property, neither of which were specified in the old 1992 law. The new version also has language that would seem to extend property rights to the indigenous and to those who have lived on a piece of land for at least five years without legal title.

The preparation of the proposed law comes one year after the Council of Ministers ordered the ministry’s Land Title Depart­ment to revise a 1998 draft in response to heavy criticism by legal experts and land advocates.

The Asian Development Bank hired government lawyer Heng Vong Bunchhat to write the latest land law draft, which he did in French. Translations into English and Khmer were just recently completed, and Sun Soeun said the draft law will be submitted to the Council of Ministers next week. A public forum is scheduled for April 7, officials said.

Cambodia’s courts are clogged with land disputes and, increasingly, disputes have escalated into incidents of public protest and violence. In one of the most recent examples, 60 houses were burned down this week in a land dispute in Battambang province (see story, right).

Nationwide, only 14 percent of all land is properly registered with the national land management system. About three-fourths of the land in Phnom Penh is not secured by legal title, according to the Land Man­age­ment Ministry.

Because of lack of mapping and proper titling, disputes have in­creased, often pitting poverty-stricken individuals against powerful officials.

A visiting World Bank mission on land issues wrote in a report last month that the concentration of land ownership by the powerful and an increased number of land­less villagers are major impediments to future growth.

“The government and donors have a full agreement that land reform is one of the most urgent, important reforms,” World Bank Country Representative Bona­ven­ture Mbida-Essama said Wed­nesday.

A new land law also is a re­quire­ment to Cambodia receiving a second disbursement of a $30 million low-interest loan by the Asian Development Bank.

Many agree implementing the proposed property law could benefit areas such as foreign investment, collection of land taxes, the banking system and environmental management.

“This [proposed] law is better than the 1992 law,” said Ang Eng Thong, president of the Cam­bodian Bar Association, which has hosted a weekly NGO working group meeting on land law since early last year. “But implementation of the law will be difficult and not efficient….It will not provide solutions on current land issues.”

Experts and government officials agree more needs to be done on such issues as property management and administration, zoning, taxation, and protection and demarcation of forest land. It is expected that subdecrees will be written to address those areas.

Still, they say, creating a new land law is the first step to dealing with the current mess.

According to the English-language version, the new draft law provides protection of public property from “informal occupants” by imposing penalties on squatters, said Land Title Depart­ment Director Voan Lim.

But the proposed law also gives some protection to individuals who have occupied a piece of land for at least five years without legal title. The draft law indicates that person has ownership rights over a land title holder who has not resided on the land, and that authorities are prohibited from forcefully evicting the person.

“In the past, the authority had power to sell, lease or confiscate land [for whatever the reasons], but the new law imposes restriction on abusing power,” Voan Lim explained.

The land of indigenous communities, which mainly exist in the northeast, “are allocated permanently and in perpetuity for the collective use of the members of the group,” according to the draft. The state may alter or restrict such land only with the consent of the community, according to the draft.

The proposed law also defines for the first time a mortgage system.

“This is a good law, but we cannot implement this law without creating lots of subdecrees,” criticized Ang Eng Thong, pointing out 14 subdecrees are required for implementing the law.

He also said that while the proposed law might prevent land disputes in the future, it is unlikely to solve current disputes. He said, for example, it would be difficult to revoke land titles from military officials on land where farmers have lived without legal documents.

And it would cause chaos if the government tries to evict people from their houses just because their houses are located on state property, such as the surrounding area of the Phnom Penh Railway Station.

“Implementing the law will not be efficient,” Ang Eng Thong predicted.

Experts also called problematic an article providing opportunities for former land owners to return to their original properties which now belong to the state or public officials. For example, if it were applied for the period before 1975, many of the state or public lands should be returned to royal family members or wealthy exiles who have not lived in Cambodia for years, they said.

George Cooper, legal adviser to the Legal Aid of Cambodia, which represents 29,600 people in 43 major land disputes, said Wednesday that the proposed law would not provide the foundation on land issues that he had hoped it would.

“It should be a great chance to tighten up the law to build the basis of land reform,” Cooper said. “But there is so much sloppiness in the draft. Certain practices and customs in Cambodia are just ignored.”

He warned, for example, that an article allowing public institutions to own property might lead to even more land-grabbing by authorities. He suggests that only the state be allowed to be the owner of public property, not individual ministries.

And he suggested that land occupied by villagers be excluded from any concession granted to a company. Currently, some logging concessions, for example, overlap with land occupied by such communities as hill tribes.

According to the Land Management Ministry, the proposed law is scheduled to be discussed with an inter-ministerial committee next month. Officials expect it to be forwarded to the National Assembly by early June.

“Even though this is a good law, we don’t expect it would be accepted as it is….There will be a lot of heated debates at the Council of Ministers,” Sun Soeun said.



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