Ethical factors: "The corruption also takes place where the ethical value was neglected by the people, for instance, people who commit corruption neglect their dignity and follow their egoism." - Unknown

 

LAND GRABS
[Under the Auspices of Economic Development]

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LAND GRABS GROWING IN CAMBODIA

 

 

Cambodia became synonymous with misery, death, destruction, and despair. It was the war, now it is all government-sanctioned under the auspices of economic development.

Land Title: Forged documents on land titles are common. Public land deals remain shrouded in secrecy. Public access to information about economic development is limited. Most government officials turn public interest into their own private businesses.

The resultant impunity along with widespread poverty and a lack of strong institutions sparked an uncontrollable mass of corruption mainly created by top politicians, and their powerful cronies. Getting rich quick fever on land deals is part of what is seen in the city with new constructions and late model cars.

 

 

Cambodian law limits economic concessions to 10,000 hectares, but LICADHO has documented regular patterns of abuse that include granting deeds of contiguous land to companies with different names, but the same office address and director. Pheapimex, with close ties to the government, allegedly claims 300,000 hectares.

Pheapimex has also been linked to Shukaku, the mysterious firm granted a 99-year lease on Boeung Kak Lake in February 2007.

Village leaders are often bought off. “And the government controls the judiciary,” notes LICADHO’S Pilorge. “They use physical abuse, divide communities, and threaten not only land organizers but their relatives with arrests.

Agriculture by Nature: Most Cambodians believe Cambodia is a country of agriculture by nature. Over 80 percent of the country's population lived in rural villages.

For them the benefits of liberation of January 7th 1979 were realized in educational and social improvements that they believe would not significantly alter the traditional character of their village life.

But landless and lack of vision, peasants are abandoning their land to work in new factories and live in city slums. Many traded off their farmland for motorbike, automobiles and relocated to the city working in garment factory.

Foreign Direct Investment: Foreign commercial ventures might have attracted villagers to Phnom Penh, while the politicians fear that Cambodia is falling behind both economically and politically.

Coastline: Dotted with palm trees and quaint bungalows, Cambodia's coast is a reminder of how blissful Southeast Asia's beaches used to look, before a tourist boom brought millions of sun-seekers from around the globe. But behind the palm trees a battle rages.

Mass evictions have scarred Cambodia for years. One of the most vicious came last year in the coastal town of Sihanoukville, where 150 police and military forced out more than 100 families and destroyed their dwellings.

The villagers were left on the side of a dirt road and 18 months later remain there. "Land grabs are reaching epidemic proportions," says David Pred, founder and director of Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia, an aide group that has been an advocate of land rights. "This is the biggest problem facing Cambodia today."

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Cambodia has one of the world's worst rates of landlessness, and the problem is growing. The U.S. Agency for International Development estimated that in 1999, 12% of Cambodians had no home or title to land. The figure has nearly doubled to 23% now, according to Pred.

Land is regularly handed out in large, illegal concessions to real estate developers, with little or no compensation for the residents, alleges Naly Pilorge, director of the human rights group Licadho.

In Phnom Penh huge tracts have been promised to Korean and Taiwanese firms, which plan enormous satellite cities. Practically all of the land along the coast and offshore islands has been leased in recent years, largely by foreign firms planning resorts, casinos and villa developments.

Sometimes entire villages are knocked down in the name of progress, and profit. Residents are shunted to distant sites lacking electricity, water or services, says Pred. Licadho has documented numerous cases where residents were rounded up by the military and simply dumped elsewhere.

Amnesty International estimates that more than 150,000 people across the country live at risk of forced eviction, and rarely for the public good, as is often the rationale for evictions elsewhere. Corruption is rampant. Transparency International recently dropped Cambodia a few more notches to rank it as the most corrupt country in Asia, just below Myanmar.

Like most developing countries, Cambodia does a terrible job of protecting property rights by giving people title to their land and having the courts back that up. And the government is not interested in talking about it.

Sok Chenda, the secretary general of the Council for the Development of Cambodia, did not respond to e-mails and telephone calls asking for comment on the issue of forced evictions. Finally he was reached on his private line but refused to meet with a FORBES ASIA correspondent.

Many fear more evictions as the coast is carved up for villas. "Development is supposed to help people," says Pred, "not make them worse."

Publication: Forbes Magazine, November 24, 2008. By Ron Gluckma.
Comment: Vorak, Ny is the founder of www.khmerwriter.com

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