Ford Thai’s head swiveled as his gray Toyota crawled over the rough road near the Kong Hong garment factory. His eyes, hidden behind tinted yellow sunglasses, scanned the neighborhood, house to house, store to store.
Then he slammed on the breaks. “There!” he said, pointing at several wooden shacks. “That’s my land.”
Ford Thai twisted himself around and stared at a dried wooden fence, covered with dust, broken in parts, with wide slats. Old cigarette cartons, plastic bottles, candy wrappers and shredded, faded clothes all clung to it. The fence teetered and swayed against the light, dusty breeze.
“That’s my wood. They used my wood to build that fence,” he said, laughing softly.
On the one hand, Ford Thai’s story is not all that different from many other Cambodians: He claims that Uy Sim, a government official, took the land while Ford Thai was in the US.
On the other hand, his story is different. First of all, Ford Thai, unlike others who claim to be victims of land-grabbing, did not live on the property, nor did he plan to. He managed the land for his niece, who wanted to build a house there eventually, and thus the dispute is a matter of finance, not livelihood.
Secondly, unlike most victims of land-grabbing, Ford Thai has proof of his niece’s ownership.
Finally, Ford Thai is a wealthy man—the owner of a solar-power company, an advertiser in the Cambodia Daily, and a man with connections of his own. He can therefore better afford, economically and physically, to take on a government official.
Nonetheless, his case illustrates just how widespread land-grabbing and land disputes are in Cambodia.
Because Cambodia is so much under the eye of the international community, national problems like land disputes get global attention.
During his visit in February, for instance, Peter Leuprecht, the UN’s top human rights monitor for Cambodia, said land-grabbing would be one of his top priorities.
“It contributes to a sense of lawlessness,” he said at the time.
After receiving Leuprecht’s report in April, the UN Human Rights Commission expressed “grave concerns” about human rights violations, in which they included forced evictions. In the report, Leuprecht promised to travel to Cambodia’s provinces to investigate the land situation.
The land problem is a refrain on the lips and reports of most international observers.
“It’s a huge problem,” Oxfam Program Representative Mike Bird said.
A recently published Oxfam survey of five provinces—Battambang, Siem Reap, Banteay Meanchey, Kompong Speu and Kompong Som—found that land commissions in those provinces had dealt with about 250 land disputes. Those cases alone involved more than 50,000 people, the report stated.
“A typical case,” the study reported, “involved about 50 families in dispute over approximately 75 hectares of rain-fed rice land that they have farmed for 10 years or more with someone in a more powerful position than them who has some kind [of] official sanction to evict the current occupants.”
A “typical case” is like that of the 31 men, women and children who huddled under the trees outside the National Assembly on a wet May morning. It had poured rain that morning, and the group, including several small children, sought shelter where they could, their hair clinging to their faces.
Some, trying to see their government officials, argued with the guards.
“It’s unfair!” one of the farmers shouted.
“They stole my land!” another said.
Kiang Chhun Ly, 57, the group’s leader, wearing a white ribbed Oxford shirt smeared with mud, said this was a reoccurring scene.
“I’ve been here 18 days,” he said.
The group was part of 51 families—242 people—who claim they lost their farm land in Kampot Province in 1991, when the commune chief took it, claiming he needed to give it to refugees. Now that someone has put a fence up in the paddies and no refugees have ever come there, the villagers believe their chief will build a factory. Already, the chief has parcelled out most of the land for his relatives, the villagers say.
The group had farmed the land since 1979, but they’ve been fighting to keep it for a decade, Kiang Chhun Ly said. And, he said, they are growing frustrated.
“We’ve come here four or five times already,” he said.
Inside the National Assembly, their government debated a mineral management law.
Although officials promised foreign donors last year they would enact a land law by the end of the legislative session, it was still not on the agenda before the annual donors meeting in Tokyo.
Part of the reason government officials are not in a hurry to reform the land law and stop land-grabbing, some observers say, is that many of them are themselves perpetrators.
As of March of this year, Legal Aid of Cambodia (LAC) was involved in 50 so-called “major cases,” where poor people are pitted against powerful people. The cases involved 43,630 people, the report stated.
The odds against poor people winning such cases are overwhelming, LAC’s Yim Simene said. Her groups has a success rate of around 20 to 30 percent, she said.
“We know if they go to court against a powerful or a rich man, it’s very difficult. But we try,” Yim Simene said.
The lucky victims are offered other land as compensation. Others are just forced off, and left to fend for themselves.
Im Chhuob, 56, a father of five, belongs to the latter group. On a hot March morning, he stood outside the remains of his home in Kampot Province, wiping his brow with a stained red krama, as workers dismantled both his and his neighbors’ homes.
“I do not have land to resettle in after I am forced from here,” he said over the din of hammers, saws, and men ripping out boards, shearing tin from the roof, and dumping the scraps on the side of the road.
Although Im Chhuob claims that he has title to the land and has lived there since 1993, a court ruled in favor of the 58-year-old businesswoman who also claims to have the title.
Im Chhuob said he learned of the eviction after returning from work on a rubber plantation. He dropped his last appeal on the case, because he doesn’t think he can get a fair trial. And now he said he does not know what to do.
“My family and I, as well as my neighbors…do not know how to live because we do not have a house any more. We must live under the trees or under a relative’s house until we can earn money too buy land and build a house,” he said.
Im Chhuob is not an unusual case, LAC’s Max Howlett said.
“Who knows what happens to them? I mean, you see them hanging around outside the National Assembly, around the Royal Palace,” Howlett said.
And the land problem is only likely to get worse as Cambodia’s population grows, Bird said.
“The long-term problem is demography,” Bird said.
Those made homeless by forced evictions and land-grabbing find themselves competing for fewer and fewer land, with more and more people, he said.
As it stands, Oxfam reports, there were only 1.64 million hectares of unused land in 1998, set against a national population expected to hit 15.5 million by 2010.
Even now, nearly 50 percent of homeless people surveyed had never owned their own land, Bird said. The choking poverty that many face has its own renewable energy, he said.
“It‘s just the status quo in some villages and that just makes them more vulnerable each year because they’re having to borrow money for rice seed, and on top of that they’re having to rent the land they’re planting,” Bird said.
As many as 20 percent of rural people could be landless, another Oxfam study notes. Those rural poor who alternate between different “modes of production”—fishing part of the year, growing rice part another part of the year, and foraging the rest of the year—are especially vulnerable, Oxfam reports: “Restricting public access to any of these domains could suddenly end this diversified, range-dependent survival strategy with devastating consequences for many rural people.”
This devastation reverberates through everything. Land grabbing, Oxfam argues, leads to malnutrition. The World Food Program estimates that as many as 60 percent of Cambodian children under the age of 5 are stunted due to malnutrition. Malnutritionleads to disease, which further undercuts national productivity. The sense of lawlessness from land-grabbing discourages outside investment.
The Provincial Land Dispute Settlement Commissions, which the government set up in the last decade to deal with land disputes, are overwhelmed, the Oxfam survey states. To make matters worse, neither local nor national government seem willing to take responsibility for resolving disputes, Oxfam claims.
Ford Thai’s case illustrates some of these same cycles of landlessness and poverty. When asked what he will do with the two dozen tenants living on the property if he wins the land back, Ford Thai did not pause—nor even blink—before answering.
“We’ll chase them out. These people just rent. We have to take it back. They are not buying, they just rent,” he said.
And so the dozen or so families who have lived in those shacks for almost three years will find themselves homeless again.
The dispute is foreign to the people living on the land near Kong Hong factory. In recent interviews, none of them knew who owned the property; they did not even know the name of the 30-something woman who collects their $11 rent each month.
The dispute between Ford Thai and Uy Sim, like many such cases, centers on the authenticity of the land title.
Ford Thai claims that his niece bought the property in 1996 for $22,000, and that he soon took over power of attorney from her.
Ford Thai says his problems began when he gave day-to-day responsibility of the land to one of his assistants, a business manager.
Both men agree that over the course of two or three years, the business manager got into debt with Uy Sim.
The manager “borrowed my money in 1996, 1997, and 1998, thousands upon thousands, until it was $10,000,” Uy Sim said.
Both Ford Thai and Uy Sim say that the business manager offered up the property as repayment on the debt, and Uy Sim said that the business manager showed him ownership papers from the local commune chief.
“I always saw him at the house whenever I went there. He even had a certificate…to show that the land belonged to him,” Uy Sim said, adding that he forgave the debt and paid $10,000 cash to buy the parcel.
If that’s true, Ford Thai said, then the papers were forgeries, and the business manager bribed someone to get them.
Documents at the Phnom Penh Land Registry show that Ford Thai’s niece is the registered owner of the parcel. She has owned it since 1996, the documents state.
In that case, Uy Sim counters, he is also a victim because he acted in good faith when he bought the land.
Ford Thai said he discovered the alleged deception after he returned from the US in 1998, and he called Sar Kheng, for whom Uy Sim works, to ask help with the case. Ford Thai claims that Uy Sim has offered to sell the land to him for $30,000—which he said is a kind of extortion.
And the government has been unresponsive to his requests for help, Ford Thai claims.
“My case is sleeping over there,” Ford Thai said.
Kiang Chhun Ly said he knows the feeling.
“Prince Rannaridh once met us and promised to ask the justice ministry to investigate. But I heard that they didn’t have gas or transportation to get up there. Sam Rainsy also came four or five days ago and said that he would talk about this in the National Assembly. [Prime Minister] Hun Sen said in 1998 that this land belonged to us. Now, it’s quiet. And we hear no plans,” he said.
Uy Sim said he has been willing to compromise, and that he feels ambushed by Ford Thai’s complaints.
“We talked already about the sharing the money after selling the land. Why is Ford Thai still going to the newspaper?” he said.
Ford Thai said he has waited three years to resolve the dispute, and is not interested in splitting any money.
“I said, ‘No, I’m not interested in a settlement like that. That’s my land.’ And so we’ll go to court,” he said, sighing.
But many other Cambodians do not have the time or the resources to take on powerful people. And many Cambodians are angry.
Cambodians like Im Chhuob.
“I do not believe in the law because it does not protect the poor people. I am being used for a businessman and powerful man’s purposes. Hun Sen said last month that if anybody had lived on land for more than 10 years, nobody should force them to leave, and the land should become their property. But for my family, who live on our own land, that announcement did not protect us at all. It is useless,” he said.
And Cambodians like Kiang Chhun Ly.
“This is our land,” he said, folding his arms across his chest. “And if the government doesn’t settle this, I will tear that fence down. And I will farm the land.”
(Additional reporting by Phann Ana)