Has Cambodia become a country for sale?

Venerable Lun Sovath
Image caption Buddhist monk Lun Sovath has taken up the villagers' cause

In a remote part of northern Cambodia, a Buddhist monk in flowing orange robes is reciting a poem. The words are anything but traditional.

"There was a day when the hostile traders conspired with the corrupted authority," chants the Venerable Lun Sovath, using measured rhyming couplets in the Khmer language.

"Wake up all Khmers and unite," he continues. "Bring back our rice fields."

He has brought me to this scrap of scrubland, where 20 villagers now eke out a living picking mushrooms, to show me the ugly side of Cambodia's system of what he describes as "economic land concessions".

Behind a fence, we can see the ruins of a village and a brilliantly green expanse of fields.

The local people say they were forced off this land, without compensation, when a sugar plantation was established here by a Thai investor.

Private companies

The country's new system of land concessions is aimed at developing the economy and capitalising on its location in rising Asia.

Image caption Hoi Mai had to give birth to her baby in prison, after protesting against "her" land being taken by "force"

Cambodia is one of the region's poorest countries, and is still recovering from the devastating civil war that followed the tyrannical rule of the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s.

Since 2005, around 15% of Cambodian land has been signed over to private companies, a third of them foreign, using leases under which they promise to develop the plots and provide jobs. One of the biggest growth areas is agriculture, because of rising world food prices and scarce global supplies.

But reports of unfair and sometimes violent "land grabs" have overshadowed the process.

"They lit the houses first, and then they shot to scare people so they would run from the houses," recounts Ho Mai, who says she lost her house.

She says the residents were literally forced out a year ago by military units acting on behalf of the plantation owner.

The Thai investors who have acquired the lease on this sugar plantation did not return my calls.

Khmer Rouge legacy

Ho Mai tried to appeal to the authorities, but she was arrested for her trouble, despite being heavily pregnant. They accused her of farming the land illegally. Her baby was born in prison.

Ho Mai is adamant that this plot is hers but she admits she has no legal documents to prove it.

This is not unusual in Cambodia. The ancient Khmer empire had few records and Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s banned all private property. Most land titles were burned, and many people moved around during the brutal civil war that raged afterwards.

So are foreign and local investors taking advantage of the chaos to take land for themselves?

"Without sounding callous, wouldn't it be nice if it was that easy?" asks Matt Rendall.

He is the land lawyer, in a sharp suit, who advised the government so closely that it is often said that he "wrote" Cambodia's investor-friendly 2001 Land Law.

He does not accept that the law encourages situations like that in O'Batman village. Instead, he says, foreign investors get caught up in a situation that is not of their making.

"For our investors, our investor clients, it's a problem they don't want," he says. "It's just going to cause them so much grievance and heartache on the ground here that it's just not worth it."

Government programme

Rendall and other international business people say they support the government's programme to issue land documents to the poor.

They would rather deal with people who have documents, because that would give them more certainty - which is better for business.

The land titling programme was initially funded by the World Bank, and other foreign donors. But they and the government have been criticised for being slow and ineffective.

The government points out that despite the problems, around two million land documents have now been issued to ordinary Cambodians.

"We as a government are making every effort possible to speed up the process of land registration," I was told by senior minister Im Chun Lim.

But one evening in Phnom Penh, I uncovered evidence of less savoury officials and business dealings.

I met a government official who explained to me anonymously how some investors get around the system.

Image caption Matt Rendall, a key adviser on the investor-friendly land law, denies it encourages land grabs

"Normally you don't need to even go via the ministry," He explained. "You can talk to the local officials, and you can just pay them to protect your land."

He told me the deals can be worth tens of thousands of dollars in bribes and payments for officials like him, whose normal earnings are the equivalent of US$200 a month.

He explained how in some cases, the officials use police or military units to make sure villagers leave the land.

"Sometimes we need to use force because we cannot talk to people who don't understand the law and are trying to take advantage," he says.

"We have to ask them to leave," he adds. "By law or by force."

Mukul Devichand's report for Crossing Continents is on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 13 January at 1100 GMT and Monday 17 January at 2030 GMT. It will also be broadcast on the BBC World Service on 13 January. You can also listen on the iPlayer or download the podcast.

More on this story

Around the BBC

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites