It’s the time of year when, for many students, the property law exam is on the horizon. Some love the subject’s technical rules and principles, whilst others find it more of a complicated tangle, but many of us may take for granted just how important property law is outside of the exam hall. It is not until you visit a country with a very basic and under-developed system that you realise how fortunate we are in the UK to have the security and protection that property law provides.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Cambodia, a country famous for the ancient temples of Angkor and its floating villages, but also the genocide in the 1970s and its thriving sex trade.
It is not until you visit a country with a very basic and under-developed system that you realise how fortunate we are…
However, you would not need to explore the brothels of Phnom Penh to find evidence of what is one of Cambodia’s most serious human rights issues. It would be difficult not to notice regular demonstrations outside the court buildings, or perhaps a mass performance of ‘Gangnam Style’ outside the National Assembly. These men, women and children — Cambodian and foreign alike — are protesting over what has become known as ‘land grabbing’: the unlawful seizure of land by state authorities. LICADHO, a prominent human rights organisation, estimates that since 2003 over 2.1 million hectares of land have been sold or leased to industrial agricultural firms, affecting an estimated 400,000 people.
To understand the problem at the heart of this, we must go back to 1975 when the Communist Party of Kampuchea, better known as Khmer Rouge, came to power under the leadership of Pol Pot with the aim of turning Cambodia into an agrarian utopia. To this end, Khmer Rouge destroyed the fabric of society, attacking the family unit, currency, religion and education. Cities were evacuated and people sent to work in the countryside in agriculture and hard labour where they died in their thousands from illness or exhaustion. Any intellectual was considered a threat to the purity of the revolution and, alongside anyone else considered a traitor, were tortured in prisons such as the infamous Tuol Sleng, and dispatched to the mass execution camps aptly known as ‘killing fields.’
Although Khmer Rouge were driven out of power in 1979, very few people today possess titles to their land. Hun Sen, who has been Cambodia’s prime minister since 1985, has never implemented a proper system of land ownership. So, while people may have built houses on a plot or farmed an area of land, technically they have no legal interest in it and it is subsumed into the land owned by the state.
…Khmer Rouge destroyed the fabric of society, attacking the family unit, currency, religion and education. Cities were evacuated and people sent to work in the countryside…
This has created a huge group of landless people who are left with no means to support themselves and their families, let alone put a roof over their heads. They have no security and no stake in society, and this subsequently contributes to other problems facing the country. For example, because of the disparity in development between the cities and the countryside in Cambodia, people flock to the cities in search of jobs. There are not enough opportunities so many find employment in garment factories or turn to the sex industry to support themselves and their families. Another option is migration to work in nearby countries, but hundreds of people each year fall into the traps set by labour traffickers.
Some recent high profile cases alerted the international community to the struggles of these people. One of these was the campaign to free the 15 women (one of whom was 72 years old) who were convicted after being arrested for peacefully protesting on a patch of sand where their homes had once been.
The result is that the people living there are evicted without any compensation or proper rehabilitation.
Of course, Cambodia is a very different country to the UK and their under-developed system of land law is exacerbated by corruption among the government and judiciary, the lack of respect for the rule of law and other problems. However, land grabbing in Cambodia goes to show that, as un-glamorous as property law may sound, it is a vital foundation of a free and fair society. Perhaps learning the rules of registered land and the ins and outs of Stack v Dowden is not quite so bad after all.