Cambodia's communities are in protracted struggle against land grab. Image: Steffi Eckelmann

Cambodia’s Land-Grabbing Crisis


Nestled in the outskirts of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh lies the serene Beoung Tamok Lake, a natural gem that stands as one of the few remaining bodies of water amidst a rapidly developing region. A dark reality mars the tranquillity of this area – the violation of human rights through land grabbing. This lake harbors a rich and diverse ecosystem, supporting a variety of avian and aquatic species.

“I have to fight for this house, this land, this shelter for my children. We live in fear of eviction at any moment,” said a 44-year-old resident, Prak Sophea, who lived on this land for over 20 years.

Land grabbing refers to the illegal or unethical acquisition of land, often involving forced evictions, displacement of communities, and destruction of natural resources. In the case of Beoung Tamok Lake and many other regions of Cambodia, powerful individuals, companies, and government officials have been involved in land-grabbing activities, aiming to exploit the area for commercial purposes such as logging, agriculture, mining, or construction.

In February 2016, the Royal Government of Cambodia issued Sub-decree No. 20, designating the Beoung Tamok Lake as state-public property. In January 2019, the authorities in Prek Pnov issued a letter to certain families residing and fishing in the lake, instructing them to vacate the premises within seven days. Beoung Tamok Lake has attracted the attention of private sector entities and real estate companies, engaging in business agreements with the government to construct lucrative housing projects, thereby generating substantial profits.

While other groups have not received eviction letters, they have been informally notified that they are occupying state land. Notably, no public forum has been organized to discuss the plans for the lake. Most local families live in dilapidated and poorly built housing, with 30% residing in makeshift shelters.

Land grabbing has uprooted families across all of Cambodia, disrupted their lives, and severed their deep-rooted connections to their ancestral land.

Resilient women’s movement

The life of Prak Sophea has been profoundly impacted as a result of the land grabbing, plunging her and her family deeper into the clutches of poverty.

Around 300 families, totaling approximately 1,000 people, face a similar grim reality in the area. Sophea has been recognized as the leader of approximately 100 residents – mostly women – in this community. The group has submitted petitions to city hall, organized protests in public parks, and confronted approaching bulldozers on their roadway. In 2020, Sophea led a group of 50 individuals to march towards the prime minister’s residence.

Sophea’s husband used to work tirelessly, crafting metal tools to sustain their livelihood. The family relied on the income generated from selling these tools and offering refreshments to those passing by the main road. These modest efforts served as their means of meeting their most basic needs. Since the land grabbing started, Sophea and her husband faced immense challenges in providing for their three young children with even the most basic necessities, such as food, water, and medicine. Despite possessing legal deeds to their houses, local authorities dismiss their validity, disregarding previous acknowledgments by village and commune chiefs.

Activists and community leaders such as Sophea, who have spoken out against land grabbing, have faced police brutality in the form of threats, intimidation, and violence. At protests, community members have been physically beaten by authorities where children were present. So far, over half of the total area of Beoung Tamok Lake’s 3,300 hectares has already been filled in by local authorities through the development of new infrastructure, such as a vegetable market, public gardens, and headquarters buildings for a few state institutions. The government offered the community members resettlement homes of very poor quality, and some have even collapsed, indicating unsafe construction practices. Furthermore, the resettlement sites are not near a main road, posing challenges for the community members to generate income by selling items such as bottled water, food, metal tools, and lotus flowers to those passing by.

In fear of arrest, following her activism, Sophea was forced to flee to Thailand in August 2023. She sent a letter to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) requesting refugee status. Before fleeing to Thailand, Sophea expressed concerns about being under surveillance by individuals dressed in civilian attire who repeatedly passed by her house. Simultaneously, she received information indicating that someone with connections to the Prek Pnov district authorities intended to lodge a complaint against her. Sophea had already faced three court orders since 2022 and fled Cambodia after she heard another complaint would be filed against her in fear of arrest and imprisonment.

Economic Land Concessions and systematic land grabbing in Cambodia have impacted indigenous communities. Image: Steffi Eckelmann

Legacy of land grabbing in Cambodia

The origins of land grabbing in Cambodia can be traced back to the period of the Khmer Rouge regime. Taking place from 1975 to 1979, the Cambodian Genocide was a horrific period marked by widespread violence, resulting in the tragic loss of 1.5 to 3 million lives. Led by Pol Pot, this regime implemented policies that abolished private property, destroyed existing land title deeds, and collectivized agriculture. During the aftermath of the regime’s collapse, Cambodia experienced a tumultuous period characterized by widespread disorder and chaos. Millions of Cambodians who had endured famine and forced labor settled in different areas without formal documentation of land ownership.

During the latter half of the 2000s, significant economic privileges were granted to Cambodia’s domestic and foreign private companies to implement extensive agricultural and industrial projects. These privileges were known as Economic Land Concessions (ELCs), which offer extended leases for large-scale agricultural operations.

“Make the bosses rich in Cambodia,” then-prime minister Hun Sen emphasized during the 2012 inauguration of a sugar refinery in Kampong Speu province. He further questioned, “If a country has no millionaires, where can the poor get their money?”. This statement highlighted the core ideology behind the ELCs policy, which claimed to benefit all by granting extensive portions of Cambodian land to a select group of elites for development. Under the ELC’s policy, Cambodian elites have mishandled vast areas of land, resulting in the displacement of numerous rural families and contributing to a shocking 40% of the country’s deforestation. The government has a plan for land across Cambodia to be turned into a profitable tourist mecca, such as hotels, apartments, and restaurants, while the poor and powerless face the bulldozers.

According to the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO), these concessions peaked in 2012, covering 12% of the country’s land. The concessions have been widely criticized for their lack of transparency and negative impact on the environment and have been the trigger for countless land disputes across Cambodia.

In a rare display of concern for Cambodia’s human rights record, on 7 May 2012, the Cambodian government issued an order establishing an immediate moratorium on new ELCs and calling for a review of all existing concessions. The government specifically threatened to seize concessions that were left undeveloped and those where illegal logging and mining occurred.

Human rights advocates argue that the moratorium on ELCs was aimed at discrediting and diverting attention from the upcoming critical report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia in 2012, Surya P. Subedi.

Time-lapse: State-involved land conflicts in Cambodia. Source: LICADHO

Despite this, in October 2014, it was estimated by the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning, and Construction that more than 1 million hectares of forest terrain and land leased by private companies had been put under government control since the moratorium was initiated. Moreover, as of November 2023, according to LICADHO, concessionaires maintain control over approximately 14% of Cambodia’s land area through the facilitation of ELCs. Moreover, the government awarded a new ELC in March 2022 for the first time in nearly a decade, which comprises more than 5,000 hectares of forest land.

According to the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association’s (ADHOC) 2022 Human Rights Report, since 2019, a staggering 22,021 families have been affected by widespread land seizures, while tens of thousands of others still await resolution for long-standing conflicts. Notably, high-ranking government officials were found responsible for 50% of the documented land disputes in 2022. The land-grabbing activities in 2022 impacted an estimated 638,932 hectares of land and 1,326 households, comprising approximately 6,062 residents, with 2,921 of them being women. Regrettably, only two out of the 42 documented land-grabbing cases have been resolved. 

In November 2023, Amnesty International published a report stating that ten thousand families are being forcibly evicted from their homes at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Angkor. Many of the families have lived in the area for several generations and are facing intimidation, coercion, and violence, showcasing how land grabbing is still strong and thriving.

International Legal Framework

Under the following seven major human rights treaties, Cambodia must respect, protect, and fulfill the right to adequate housing.

  1. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
  2. International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)
  3. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)
  4. Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)
  5. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)
  6. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD)
  7. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT)

Forced evictions are incompatible with these obligations: they directly violate the human right to adequate housing. Under international human rights law, states must ensure that evictions only occur in exceptional circumstances and require full justification, given their adverse impact on a wide range of internationally recognized human rights.

Despite Cambodia’s constitutional recognition of international human rights treaties, their practical implementation still needs to be improved. Specifically, Cambodia has embraced two United Nations directives concerning the right to housing and protection against land grabbing. While these directives are not legally binding, they do place a strong obligation on state parties to adhere.

Firstly, the Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-Based Evictions presented in 2007 by the Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing to the Human Rights Council (A/HRC/4/18, Annex I), state that the international community bears an obligation “to promote, protect, and fulfill the human right to housing, land, and property.” Secondly, General Comment No.7 on forced evictions by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights delineates that “evictions should only be carried in exceptional circumstances and in full accordance with relevant provisions of international human rights and humanitarian law.” Both documents condemn forced evictions as “egregious violations of human rights” and emphasize the government’s responsibility to provide “fair compensation and suitable alternative housing” that guarantees access to “essential sustenance, clean water and sanitation, basic shelter and housing, livelihood opportunities, and previously relied-upon communal resources.”

The international community’s attempts to respond to these repeated expropriations have seen little success. In 2014, Global Diligence Partner Richard J Rogers filed a Communication on behalf of victims to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), alleging that widespread land grabbing and mass forced evictions amount to crimes against humanity under international law.

In September 2016, the ICC released a new policy paper stating that it will prioritize crimes within its jurisdiction that are committed using or result in “the destruction of the environment, the illegal exploitation of natural resources, or the illegal dispossession of land.”

As the struggle against land grabbing in Cambodia persists, the international community must remain steadfast in addressing human rights violations and pursuing justice. Prak Sophea’s story and thousands of others call for a comprehensive and unwavering response that upholds international law and safeguards all Cambodian citizens’ fundamental rights and dignity.

Authors Note: The information presented in this article is derived from personal interviews conducted by the author with local Cambodian residents living at Beoung Tamok Lake in March 2023. This article has been supplemented with updated information as of February 2024. The individuals interviewed graciously shared their vulnerable and heartfelt stories and allowed their pictures to be taken.

Laura Shorten

Laura is a freelance journalist and researcher working at the intersection of human rights, social justice, and international law. Laura holds an International Bachelor of Social Sciences Degree, a Post-Graduate Diploma in Law, and an Advanced LLM in International Children's Rights. She has published many articles on democracy, women's rights, justice reform, and climate change. Currently, she is working as a consultant for Align Social Impact and Human Rights Now. Laura previously worked for UNICEF and the UCD Foundation in fundraising and communications roles.

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