I think it is access to good, arable land. Eighty per cent of Cambodians live in rural areas, and they depend on the land for their survival. If the state takes their land to give to a private company for development, economic development – which sounds good in name – but then does not give them enough compensation. I think that this is very, very sad for them because they have no more hope for their children or for their grandchildren. So now the worst problem in Cambodia is that concerning land.
Who is grabbing the land?
More than 2 million hectares have been leased to private companies as economic land concessions for more than 90 years; it is essentially giving land to this private company. Some are Cambodian-owned, some are foreign-owned, it is not transparent, and so it is very difficult for us to know exactly who is behind a company with a good name. It is difficult for us to get to the truth but we know that these private companies are very close to those in power.
Once a person has been given this economic land concession – what happens next?
In general, they are violating the land law adopted in 2001, which clearly states that no one can get more than 10,000 ha for any one company, but we see some companies get more than this. And they are also violating a sub-decree of the land law that stipulates the conditions for establishing economic land concessions. The government should provide fair compensation to the people, but it is rare that we see this. Instead, we see forced evictions, homes being destroyed, cattle being destroyed, plantations being destroyed, and forced relocation to sites where there is no shelter, no running water, no electricity, no school, no toilet, no medical care, and no jobs. Instead of increasing economic growth, poverty is increasing. All the people who owned land belonged to the middle class – once you take their land they become poor. This again is the policy of the government.
You said they violate the law: Can LICADHO send a lawyer to them and can they go to some court? Or is that impossible?
Yes, we have some lawyers and we have explained to the people their rights and the land law. Some would like to fight this injustice in court, but there have been cases where people end up in prison, instead of getting compensation and justice after their land had been grabbed. So it has become very risky for some people to go to court.
What other chances do people have to find work? Can they go to the city and work in a factory?
The city is now full of people, especially young women, who have come from the countryside, but the chances of getting a good job are slim. Sometimes the job is in a factory, a textile factory, with a very low salary and very hard working conditions. This is why we see hundreds of thousands of Cambodians leaving for Thailand or South Korea in search of jobs. Many women go to Malaysia as domestic workers, but it is very risky. Sometimes they go with a legal company, which means they have permission from the Ministry of Labour, but sometimes it is not legal and the women end up being trafficked; in other words, they are sold into prostitution or forced labour. It is difficult to know which companies are legitimate or not because the paperwork can be faked.
One of the economic land concessions that has been very controversial is sugar plantations. And there is a big debate now as to whether or not exporting sugar to Europe, which is now easier than it used to be, is to the benefit of Cambodia. What is your opinion on that? Would you like us to buy your sugar or would you rather say: “Please don’t buy”?
Yes, sugar is just one example. More than 80,000 hectares of land were grabbed from the people and given to a rich company to plant sugar cane. In 2006, sugar exports totalled 50,000 US Dollars, and in 2011 it was worth more than 13 million US Dollars. In three provinces, Koh Kong, Kampong Speu, and Oddar Meanchey, land was taken with violence. They forced people to leave their land, destroyed their plantations, their homes, and their cattle. And in some cases, they were shot at or arrested.
This is why we would like the EU to investigate this case. According to their own regulations, trade preferences granted under Everything but Arms (EBA) are to be suspended if there are human rights violations detected. Despite the European Parliament’s resolution of 23 October 2012, we still have not seen any action from the EU.
Cambodians have started their own lobbying programme called “Blood Sugar.” Two-hundred Cambodians have been working on this for two years, and now they have filed a civil lawsuit in London against the British company Tate & Lyle saying that the land that produces the sugar they import and sell was taken from them and they want the company to compensate them for it.
The EU is still the biggest donor when it comes to development aid. What would you expect the EU to do?
We think that if a donor gives money to a country, they can influence that country; they can implement their own regulation. When we look at EU regulations, we see a lot about human rights, which is nice, but we would like to see the EU implement its own regulation. When donors give money to civil society organizations, they place certain conditions on it and it is up to us to accept it or not. The same should be true when a donor gives money to a state, there is no difference.
So would you expect civil society in our countries here in Europe to put pressure on our governments to make good on their fine words?
I think it is essentially taxpayer money and the government is accountable to the taxpayer. So, yes, I think the German people have the right to ask the German government to ensure that money being given to a developing country be used in a good way.
Would you say that there is too much goodwill and not enough strictness on our side?
I would not say that about your side… but we talk about donors in general. Normally a donor does not want to hurt the government; they want to maintain good relations. I understand that when a donor has an embassy and a diplomatic representative in a country, they have to find a diplomatic way of placing conditions on the financial aid that they give. It is very difficult for a diplomat to make clear that they want to see their money being used to help the people, and not some corrupt group.
Coming back to the election, the election campaign will start at the end of June, and there are only four weeks of campaigning. Are any of these issues discussed in the campaign? Or is it just about staying in power or getting into power? Or do people have a real choice to discuss these issues and to make informed decisions about how to vote?
This is a very good question. Cambodia has many problems concerning land, trafficking, domestic violence, rape, unemployment, etc. Most Cambodians do not want to hear one political party criticizing another or threats of what will happen if they do not vote for one party or another. They would like to hear what will be done to solve the country’s problems once someone is elected. They want to see maturity among the political parties. This is the will, the wish of the Cambodian people.
The interview was conducted by Renate Wilke-Launer at the Heinrich Böll Foundation in June, 2013.