The gloves come off – the Boeung Kak land dispute and the demise of the LMAP in Cambodia

by Rhodri C. Williams

Just a quick post to highlight COHRE’s latest ESC rights quarterly, which focuses almost exclusively on a dispute between government-backed developers and long-settled residents in the Boeung Kak neighborhood of the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. In the lead article, Natalie Bugalski (formerly of COHRE) and David Pred (of Bridges across Borders) summarize and update a longer report – Untitled: Tenure Insecurity and Inequality in the Cambodian Land Sector – earlier published by COHRE, BAB and Jesuit Refugee Services.

The article details the collapse of a longstanding accommodation between international donors, who hoped to eventually curb rampant land-grabbing in Cambodia through non-intrusive measures such as capacity-building and legislative reform, and the Government of Cambodia, which proved unwilling to continue playing along when international advice began to impinge directly on its core economic interests. It is a fascinating story and one which has not received the attention it deserves to date, despite the implications it has for donor-driven reconstruction and development activities in other post-conflict settings where land is regarded by local authorities as a resource subject largely to their own discretion.

The story focuses on the Land Management and Administration Project, or LMAP, a fifteen year multi-million dollar donor project meant to demarcate Cambodia’s land and ensure its competent administration. Even in the course of my own research for COHRE on Cambodia in 2006, it was clear that LMAP was doing a highly competent job of registering title to land where outstanding issues were limited to, e.g., minor boundary disputes between neighbors, but was neither prioritizing its efforts to provide tenure security to the communities most vulnerable to land-grabbing, nor addressing the numerous politically controversial cases in which high-ranking civil and military officials had abused their power to acquire land and natural resources.

In their more recent piece in ESC Rights Quarterly, the authors note the perpetuation of this trend through last year and the sudden demise of the LMAP when the Boeung Kak case rendered its internal contradictions painfully apparent. Boeung Kak was a well-established lakeside neighborhood in Phnom Penh inhabited by members of the Cham minority whose longstanding settlement of the land gave them an arguable claim to recognition and registration through the LMAP project. Instead, the government bent its own laws to declare the area a development zone and initiated the latest dreary round in a saga of development driven urban forced evictions that has played out in Phnom Penh since the early 1990s.

Although there are many prior instances of the Cambodian government ignoring inconvenient provisions of domestic law, the difference this time appears to be that the flagrancy of the Boeung Kak case, combined with the fact that the World Bank, LMAP’s main sponsor, had become indirectly implicated through its failure to raise the issue in an earlier supervision mission in the area. In the event, concerted human rights advocacy appears to have played a role in leading the World Bank to recommend that the Government apply its resettlement policy in carrying out the evictions, to which the Government replied by pulling the plug on LMAP. In the meantime, as described in the latest ESC Rights Quarterly, the case will continue to have implications as the World Bank Inspection Panel has announced that it will conduct a full investigation into the conduct of the LMAP.

The untimely end of the LMAP is likely to leave many Cambodians worse off. Even if the program was unable to address the most negative factors in Cambodian land management, it was at least reinforcing the few positive trends that could be identified. However, by implicitly cabining off the tractable technical land issues from the thorny political ones and ignoring the latter, the LMAP had also arguably placed itself in a legally and ethically untenable position. The cost of this policy becomes apparent in a recent blog post for MRG by Carl Soderbergh, who provides a personal perspective on the fate of the mainly Cham minority residents of the beleaguered Boeung Kak settlement. The question, now that the Cambodian authorities have put their cards on the table, is where to go from here?

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8 responses to “The gloves come off – the Boeung Kak land dispute and the demise of the LMAP in Cambodia

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