Land Rights, The Khmer Rouge and Cambodia's Current Regime
The Khmer Rouge stranglehold on Cambodia was broken with the invasion of Vietnam in 1979. A nightmare ended, but it was not replaced by the light of day. Many former Khmer Rouge cadres retained positions of responsibility. The most disastrous reimplementation of Khmer Rouge-style policies came with the K5 "Bamboo Wall" between Cambodia and Thailand. From 1984 to 1988, under Hun Sen and Heng Samrin, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were forcibly sent to build it. There was no public announcement of the decision to build the wall. The reason later given was that it was intended to keep the Khmer Rouge, who had been pushed into Thailand, out. But the wall was not, and could not have been, effective in this: the Khmer Rouge almost recaptured Battambang in 1994. The real aim, and result, was to prevent Cambodians from fleeing to Thailand.
Those sent there spoke of a "new April 17": that was the day in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took control of Phnom Penh. Hun Sen was promoted from foreign minister to prime minister as the wall was being built. Each province of the country was assigned a section. People worked under conditions similar to those they had known under the Khmer Rouge. Thousands died through the overwork that was brutally enforced, or were maimed by land mines. There was no shelter, and no point building any, as the workers were constantly kept moving. People slept on plastic sheets, or on the ground. Malaria was rife. Beatings and extra work were the usual punishments if targets were not met.
No-one in government ever publicly questioned the plan. The rich and powerful, if summoned, simply paid poor people to take their place. Many never returned: only their ashes were returned to their families. Those who tried to escape were executed. The mines that were laid there still kill and maim innocent people on a regular basis.
The destruction of land titles in the Khmer Rouge years gave later governments the scope to appropriate land as they wished. In the 1960s, land seizures had been one reason why the Khmer Rouge was able to find recruits. Disregard for private property rights was a feature of the continuity that many Cambodians experienced after the fall of Pol Pot. As Global Witness has documented, political connections today remain a much better way to secure land than legal ownership. The government has evicted huge numbers of Cambodians from their land with no regard for their rights and scant interest in their well-being. This is often done to secure the access of the powerful to the country’s natural resources, such as timber, as at Prey Lang, and sugar, as at Koh Kong.
The environment is a frequent casualty. National parks and wildlife sanctuaries have been turned into rubber plantations. Forests are stripped in the name of high-end wood exports. This is frequently done by a joint venture between members of the ruling elite and foreign investors. Resistance can be fatal. The activist Chut Wutty, who led the Natural Resource Protection Group, was killed in 2012 as a result of his campaigning against illegal deforestation.
Available statistics do not reflect the full extent of land grabbing as many smaller incidents are unreported. Global Diligence has estimated that 830,000 Cambodians, or more than 5% of the total population, have been adversely affected by land grabbing since 2000 alone. The typical pattern is that land grabbing eases off during election years, and then resumes promptly afterwards. Among the most famous examples is the Boeung Kak lake development in Phnom Penh. The dispute prompted the World Bank in 2011 to halt new loans to Cambodia until some of those who were being forced out were given an on-site resettlement option. People who had lived there since the early 1980s were removed with derisory compensation and the lake was filled in for property development. Those who didn’t take what was offered were forcibly removed and given little or nothing. The victims included people who were marched out of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge in 1975. Many of the 20,000 population around the lake had returned from refugee camps in Thailand in the early 1990s. Those who have dared to protest against the evictions have found themselves intimidated and imprisoned. The Borei Keila land grab in Phnom Penh at the hands of the Phanimex company forced some former residents into prostitution to survive.
Many things have been lost in the tragic modern history of Cambodia. Security of land tenure was among them. Even more important was the opportunity that should have existed for self-determination. This is what Cambodians sought from France in the early 1950s, but it has never yet been realised. The Cold War sabotaged King Sihanouk’s attempts to move the country away from monarchy and towards democracy. The Khmer Rouge shattered the educated classes that should have provided the basis of a modern political culture. They came to power with the help of the Vietnamese Communists and were finally ousted by them.
It is the quest for national self-determination, not anti-Vietnamese sentiment, that has been at the core of my political engagement. My commitment to human rights has no exceptions. It does not matter whether the foreign investors who benefit from land grabbing in Cambodia are from China, Vietnam, Thailand, or elsewhere. Many Vietnamese are opposed to their own oppressive, Communist regime. Those who seek asylum in Cambodia must be given protection and assistance. An example is the recurrent inflow of Montagnards from Vietnam. These people face persecution in their own country, but most are simply sent back by Cambodia. The government must shelter and then find permanent domicile for them with the help of the United Nations.