In 1953 King Norodom Sihanouk proclaimed Cambodia’s independence from France and shortly thereafter abdicated to enter politics. Around this time, land records were relatively common in urban areas. They clearly and formally demarcated property ownership, whereas in rural areas, more traditional and informal systems were used. Fast forward to 1960s and a series of events catapulting Cambodia into social disruption, that affected land tenure for a half-century. Almost all of its people were exiled from their land at some point during these three relatively recent periods between the late 1960s and late 1980s. The American bombings (1969-1973) affected large areas in the east of the country. Most affected were the Kampuchea Krom (an ethnically Khmer people from the southwest of Vietnam). ‘Krom’ means ‘low’ or ‘below’ in Khmer and these people were largely disenfranchised and to some degree still are.
1970s & 1980s
In April 1975, Democratic Kampuchea or Khmer Rouge (KR) captured Phnom Penh, forcing its city inhabitants into rural areas in a bid to create an agrarian, communistic society. Property was confiscated, land records destroyed and many traditional landholding systems rendered obsolete, causing countless clashes ever since. Phnom Penh was effectively emptied of its inhabitants as they were warned to flee from American bombers. They left quickly, taking few belongings to walk, ride or drive away from the threatened city. Days and weeks passed… and then the people began to realise they were duped. The next 4 years under KR control were hell on earth, during which time houses were looted or destroyed. In January 1979, Vietnamese troops entered Phnom Penh and drove the KR out and occupied the city for a decade. During this time hundreds of thousands of Khmers sought refuge from this new threat.
Those well enough to travel returned ‘home’ often to find new inhabitants claiming it as their own. As there were no ownership records, this was quite prevalent. This meant that ‘lucky’ families could own properties in areas that became, in later years, very valuable. Coupled with the fact that most Khmer families have never held a mortgage, this produced an asset-rich, cash-poor micro-economy. This may explain why many Khmer owners seldom spend money on shared areas or are seldom open to negotiating.
The 1990s dawned a new era. Many people felt that, without titles delineating ownership, powerful interests were taking control of vast tracts of land, displacing locals. The government passed the first post-KR land law in 1992 to allow private land ownership. The following year, a UN orchestrated election produced a coalition of Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen (former KR guerrilla).
Later in 2001, the National Assembly adopted a Land Law to help individuals and companies to register land. It wasn’t until 2012 that Hun Sen enacted a moratorium to grant new and a review of existing ELCs (large landholdings known as Economic Land Concessions). In that same year, the government instigated a rural land titling scheme that benefited hundreds of thousands. By 2016, the land ministry claimed to have provided 4 million rural land titles under this scheme (expected to be completed by 2023).
Even today, property ownership is hotly disputed in some parts of the country, which is all the more poignant as its people face unprecedented economic growth and poverty reduction amidst a flood of foreign investment. The government acknowledges there remain some territorial conflicts but claims it continues to protect the rights of small farmers and the urban poor.