Accessibility links

Breaking News

Land Crisis Echoes Pre-Revolution Period

With land disputes widespread in the provinces, longtime Cambodia observers say the conditions are similar to those of the 1960s that gave rise to the Khmer Rouge, even as they warn against revolution.

Human rights and democracy advocates say Cambodia's current land crisis has signaled an evolution of the country's former revolutionaries into powerful officials similar to those that were toppled in the past.

The mechanisms to solve land disputes, which can include forced evictions, arson and arrest of residents, have failed, with most decisions coming in favor of the wealthy and powerful, said Kek Galabru, president of the rights group Licadho.

Victims of land disputes have little recourse, Kek Galabru said, as evidenced by their pilgrimages to Prime Minister Hun Sen's front door.

"Until now, no measures have come out to readily solve the crisis," she said. "Having no other choice, they come to Phnom Penh, begging for the prime minister's intervention. This can't be the way. We must have a powerful system that can solve the crisis effectively, unlike the National Authority for the Resolution of Land Disputes."

Hun Sen has publicly warned land-grabbing officials, who often have high posts in the government or military, to stop the practice or face a revolution over the land, she said.

"The prime minister has warned about this more often than us," she said.

So far, the landless have maintained non-violent protests, Kek Galabru said, but that may not always be the case.

"If more and more farmers continue to lose their land, continue to face a state of anger and suffering, I'm afraid one day they will lose their patience," she said.

The best way to prevent a violent revolution, she said, is the democratic election of leaders.

The full scope of land grabs in the provinces is not known, but they are pervasive, occurring in every corner of the country.

On a trip to the northeast last year, UN human rights envoy Yash Ghai warned that landlessness could lead to political instability.

Keat Sokun, a leading member of the Human Rights Party, pointed out the land-grabs of the early 1960s were actually smaller than they are now. The land thefts that in part fueled the Khmer Rouge took place in the areas of Ta Moeun and Samlot in Battambang province.

"People suffering from land-grabs are falling into a situation where they have nothing to loose," he said. "They are losing hope, which forces them to resort to whatever means and it could lead to what is called a revolution over the land crisis."

Hun Sen has been unable to stop the land crisis because the causes of it are people surrounding him, and even as he solves one dispute, another takes its place, Keat Sokun said.

"I see that those who grab farmers' land are powerful," he said. "They are not punished, but became senators, lawmakers and powerful officials in government. So these ties make the crisis more serious. Do you think senators who would grab farmers' land would write a law to serve the people's interest?"

Those who had led a revolution in years past were now leading a new feudalism, he said, comparing modern Cambodia to the Western novel, "Animal Farm," by George Orwell.

In that book, a group of barnyard animals overthrow their human owners, only to become mired in an authoritarian power struggle of their own.

"We are not different from it," he said. "They are not only pigs, but others join the pack."

Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said such comparisons were not warranted, as the government had been democratically elected, and that a revolution over the current land crisis was not possible.

Around 420,000 people in a population of 14 million are involved in land conflicts, which was a reflection of economic boom, he said, adding that the government was paying close attention to the issue.

Revolution meant violence and was therefore a poor choice, he said.

"It is not like 'Animal Farm,'" he said. "This is a comment from a dream. What I am worried about is not whether revolutionists have become feudalists, but the cry that 'four legs are good, two legs are bad,' which alleges that the ruling CPP is bad and the consequence is 'ducks and chicken protest.'"

Such criticism by the opposition had become stereotypical and ignored the facts, he said. "Don't take what the opposition says as always right."

Whether Cambodia is traveling on four legs or two, powerful men can turn to personal interest, and the quest for land and property can give rise to feudalism, said Lao Monghay, a senior researcher for the Asian Human Rights Commission.

Even Karl Marx saw this, he said. This is normal for human nature and that is why a country needs checks and balances, between executive, legislative and judiciary bodies.

"It is normal among all nationalities of the world turning from poor to rich and revolutionaries toppling feudalism to become feudalists themselves," he said. "Leaders who abided by Karl Mark’s doctrine to topple capitalists become capitalists themselves."

Few communists don't have a desire to be rich, and a lot of revolutionaries forget their own social class or become feudalists, he said.

To keep themselves in power, they motivate the youth to enjoy happy lives and to forget national problems, he said.

Still, he warned, no matter how serious the land crisis becomes, a violent revolution ending in bloodshed is not the answer.

The democratic selection of leaders is a system honored by countries around the globe, and revolution doesn't necessarily lead to a better regime.

Lao Monghay said he had heard this from one of the country's Khmer Rouge revolutionaries, Nuon Chea, the senior-most surviving leader of the regime.

"I asked him to compare the society that he toppled and present society, to say which is better," Lao Monghay said. "He said it was the society that he toppled. I was shocked with anger to hear that Cambodia toppled a better society for the worse."