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Land Law Applied:

May 17, 2005   Today's Cambodia Daily reports that most of the land in SHV, which is actually larger than Singapore, is owned by about 10 people.

May 15, 2005 

Of course, not every piece of land is equal. Like every country, some land in Cambodia is held off to the side for the purposes of National Defense or National Interest (“State Public Property”) and other parcels for collective ownership for Indigenous Communities and Monasteries (Pagodas).

Although I bushwhacked my way through a great spit of seafront property earlier today that seemed to be demarcated as Pagoda property, and would thus present an interesting intellectual excersise, I'll hold the Indigenous and Monastery provisions aside.

Seashores, lakefronts and riverfronts and indeed national heritage sites such as Angkor Wat, the more than 1,000 other temples and sites such as Choeung Ek (“The Killing Fields”) are of national interest and are therefore defined in Article 15 of the 2001 Land Law as “State Public Property”. With respect to waterfront property, the law dictates a distance, of some say its 50 m others say 30 m and still others say its 20 m, behind the high water mark that can be privately owned.

Former MP Base, Certainly would make for a nice resort

Article 16 explains that State Public Property cannot be owned by anyone but the government, nor can it be acquired through possession (the way other classifications of land can). However the state can authorize temporary occupation of State Public Land and if the land has been deemed to no longer serve the public’s purpose, the government can transfer it into another classification, State Private Property. In this case, if the system was humming like a finely tuned VW, tracking of that decision would be simple; one would only have to check the Cadastral Registry, presumably in PP. Article 17 describes how a special sub-decree is then required to sell State Private Property to private citizens.

Chapter 5 of the Act takes the time to explain that anyone occupying State Public Land innocently or ignorantly (unknowing), no matter what the duration, has no right to ownership nor compensation upon displacement. Those that can prove occupation of State Private Land prior to August 30, 2001 have a right to continue occupation and have a right to apply for ownership after 5 years. Clearly the site of a Military, Military Police or Police Base would easily fall within the notion of National Defense or Public Service and hence the category of State Public Property.

But then the question “Who is the State?” and the reality of the “fiefdoms” comes to the fore.

This is what I think happened in the Ochheuteal Beach area:

Post KR, Ochheuteal became a Military Police Base set between the naval base located in what is today, Ream National Park and the SHV’s port. Maybe for a time, the rationale was that Ochheuteal would be a second defense in case the island outposts beyond the bay weren’t strong enough to deter invading forces. Certainly, Ochheuteal was part of the same amnesty program that the rest of the country was part of. HS offers, “Renounce any conviction, dedication or association with the KR and join the government’s side and on top of amnesty, and a similar or higher rank in the government’s military, we’ll give the bunch of you this land to do whatever you want with. Just join us.” Vast portions of provinces like Battambang and Kampot were simply gifted to the "defectors" and their supporters.

The Military ranks swell as does the CPP’s membership pledging dedication to HS.

“War heroes” begin acting like they’re the local representatives of the state. They start doweling out different forms of possession rights to land directly on the base and since no one else is around to stop them, areas adjacent. The combination lock to the vault is passed around. They don’t even have to steal the SUV’s from the NGO’s anymore. The booty is staggering compared to the paltry $60 / month wage.

Less than a well-oiled machine in any sense, the government including its Cadastral system in PP doesn’t even have word that a land transfer was requested let alone made. Why would it? The country is a set of fiefdoms; “My Boss signed it, that’s all you need.”

I think the questions for the Guest Houses and indeed for myself at Karmaland on Koh Rong, would be:

  • What is the real distance from the high water mark? (I’ve tried for hours to find the 2001 Law, but thus far I’ve only found the 1994 Law. I will continue my search).

If within that water limit or on a piece of what was previously an MP Base which is also considered State Public Land,

  • Am I operating under a duly authorized temporary occupation of State Public Land?
  • What does duly authorized mean? Who has the right to act for the state?
  • Was the land that I am investing in, transferred from State Public Land to State Private Land because it was no longer of public interest?
  • Was there a corresponding sub-decree issued by the Council of Ministers allowing sale of the State Private Land to a private Cambodian National?
  • Is that Cambodian National the same guy I bought, leased or rent from?
  • If part of my investment lies too close to the water, am I OK behind that point?
Lot’s of good people invested and worked hard to build successful properties that put SHV and indeed Cambodia onto the “Lonely Planet” map, but its all hanging on a thread of silk. If it’s too good to be true, chances are it’s not true. A hundred woven strands of silk can be impenetrable to human force but PP and the Oknhas can be fire.

Really, everyone being displaced; the squatting families, the guest houses and the local businesses, knew that there would be the day. Although each had to varying degrees some form of reassurance that their investment of either money or work would pay back and for certain some have simply spent so much time there, occasionally threatened but basically unfettered, today’s reality is hard to believe.

Anybody want to buy 2 ha of seashore on the most stunning island off the coast of SHV?

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