Oum Samorl remembers the day in June 2006 when tractors invaded her family’s farm in Cambodia’s Pailin province.
The invasion was part of an operation that cleared and seized 684 hectares of paddy fields and farmland belonging to 147 families in four villages. The orders came from local lawmaker Ban Sreymom and her husband Y Chhean, a former bodyguard to Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot who was then serving as governor of Pailin province. The couple sought to turn what they claimed was state land into a cassava plantation.
To this day, the families have not been able to return to their land – a situation that has stripped them of their livelihoods and compounded the effects of other injustices perpetrated by the Cambodian authorities.
“The disease we suffer during this pandemic period is not COVID-19, but landlessness,” Oum says.
From the very beginning, Oum and the other displaced farmers sought to return to their land by legal, non-violent means. They petitioned the provincial authorities and requested meetings with Y Chhean, who repeatedly rebuffed them. At public forums organized by local authorities, they shared their despair at having their land and livelihoods taken away. At religious gatherings, they prayed for spirits to force the land-grabbers to return their land.
In 2014, four evictees from Oum’s village were imprisoned for moving back onto the land they had lost years earlier. To secure their release, relatives were forced to sign away their rights to the land. Once the detainees were released on bail, Ban Sreymom’s tractors returned with military and police escort to once again remove any sign that the land once belonged to dozens of farming families.
“We couldn’t stand the pain of that event,” Oum recalls.
The evicted farmers travelled to Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, to bring their case to the national authorities. They held press conferences and submitted petitions to the National Assembly, the French embassy, the Ministry of Justice, and the Ministry of Land, Urbanization, and Construction, demanding legal representation for the four farmers who were out on bail and the establishment of joint committees to resolve the land disputes. The ministries issued directives on both counts, but these were ignored by the authorities in Pailin province.
Some opposition parties caught wind of the farmers’ plight and promised to secure the return of their land if they were elected. This put the necessary pressure on the Pailin authorities to set up joint committees, which initiated a process of land demarcation with funding from the EU starting in March 2016. However, many villagers were ordered by local authorities not to demarcate their land, and that land was then distributed to other families.
In May 2020, when two community representatives asked the chief of Stung Trong commune to stamp documents recognizing their rights to their land, the chief refused, saying the land belonged to someone else.
“It’s like the saying, we escaped the crocodile only to meet the tiger. We have no one to turn to for help,” Oum says.
“The joint committee for land conflict was a joke. It has wasted time we could have used to earn a living, causing us to fall into debt and poverty, which have gotten worse since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic,” she says.
The Cambodia government’s response to the pandemic included the State of Emergency Law, adopted in April 2020, which gave Prime Minister Hun Sen the authority to declare a state of emergency and restrict public gatherings and free expression. The risk of criticizing the government rose, forcing the evictees to censor themselves and bear the burden of landlessness in silence. Microfinance institutions continue to demand payments from families with no money or jobs. The prices of agricultural products have dropped, cutting into families’ incomes. Many have had to sink themselves further into debt.
“I know one auntie who is 75 years old and cannot make money and does not have enough food. She gave her land titles to a moneylender as collateral, and she cannot get them back. She wants to commit suicide. There are many cases like this,” Oum says.
“The government should end the land conflict by issuing land certificates to people in accordance with their rights. We have been in this situation for more than 10 years, and we could not make a proper living,” she says.
“Landlessness is the disease that demands investigation by the authorities, who should be developing a cure rather than continuing to inflict trauma on local people and making them lose faith in the government.”