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Evictions Fuel Social Unrest in Cambodia

Violent clashes between poor Cambodians and security forces evicting them from the land they live on have increased fears of widespread unrest over the country's land policy.  Large numbers of displaced people could hurt the country's bid for peaceful development.

Chey Sophat sleeps in a makeshift shelter atop an unused dam in northwestern Cambodia. Ten meters away, the house he lived in for eight years lies in rubble. His family, along with 217 others, lost its land on March 21 when the police enforced a court-ordered eviction.

Five men were shot dead as the villagers - among Cambodia's poorest citizens - used axes, knives, acid and gasoline to try to hold onto their patch of land in Poipet Commune.

The area is being developed as a casino resort for tourists from neighboring Thailand. 

Chey Sophat says the villagers settled on the land years before it became a lucrative development zone, and toiled to clear the landmines left from decades of conflict. They built homes there while working across the border in Thailand or running small businesses, such as selling noodles.

But, despite their hard work, the villagers failed to establish their claim to the land, and the provincial court instead granted the land rights to a village chief with better political connections.

Approximately 15 percent of the country's 13 million people have no land to call their own.  And according to the World Bank, nearly 43 percent of Cambodians live on $1 or less a day, up from 37 percent in 1996.

Many rights advocates worry that the Poipet Commune conflict is a harbinger of the violence that could erupt as more people are displaced.

Thun Saray, president of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, says courts generally rule that Cambodia's poor are trespassers, and many see violence as their only hope.

"If they don't care about this, I think the tension, violence would be increased more and more," he said.  "And also the political [situation] will be unstable also if they lack the social and economic situation like this." 

The Khmer Rouge leaders who came to power in 1975 erased formal property rights. When the brutal regime fell in 1979, the huge numbers of Cambodians returning from work or refugee camps were forced to settle where they could. With their land titles destroyed or lost, it was impossible to respect the earlier claims that usually direct land allocation in post-conflict societies.

Ensuing legislation has added complications. A new act passed in 2001 says that anyone occupying land for at least five years can claim ownership. But this law is often at odds with a 1992 law requiring people to provide a title to prove land rights. Those who settled in the nine years between are often left in limbo.

Song Vannsin, a land expert with the aid agency Oxfam, says the system is ineffective, as anyone with money can buy a land title or influence a judge.

"According to the observation, it seems like one party, the other party who tries to get the land from the poor, they always have the official document. And we don't know what is the legal document," he said.

Cambodia's largely undeveloped countryside and cheap work force make the country inviting to commercial investors. And its recent accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) has forced the country to discuss legislation and reforms to protect foreign and local business interests.

However, according to one Western diplomat, the political will to enforce transparency and strengthen the rule of law is lacking, and the legal risks surrounding land often scare away investment.

About 70 percent of Cambodia's population depends on subsistence farming, but farmland is increasingly being given to businesses. Nearly 15 percent of Cambodia's land has been granted to private companies for forestry, fishing, agricultural plantations and mining.

Earlier this year, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen temporarily froze land concessions, admitting the country must address land distribution problems or face what he called a "peasant revolution." But in March, the government again began doling out land to waiting investors.

International aid donors have blasted the government for granting contracts without full public knowledge and for allowing concessions to far exceed the legal 10,000 hectares. Some aid agencies say the deals also often do little to help the country's finances.

Chea Vannath is director of the Center for Social Development, which analyzes social trends. She says people are increasingly desperate about land issues.

"Before when people are unhappy, they took the gun and they go to the jungle. Now there's no more jungle to hide because of illegal logging," she said.

Ms. Vannath thinks a steady deterioration of living conditions and stability is more likely than a revolt and is concerned about increases in violent crime, robbery, and trafficking of drugs and people.

At the Poipet Commune, Chey Sophat plans to salvage what he can of his burned and bulldozed possessions and then search for food and water. He hopes the government will find land for him and his neighbors, but he wearily predicts that they will face eviction once more.

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