Understanding Cambodia’s Land Law

After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, private property was recognized again starting in 1989. But efforts to create a long-lasting and comprehensive land law did not come about until the turn of the century, under heavy influence from the World Bank. The result of that controversial process was the 2001 Land Law, which still forms the legal basis for Cambodian land ownership today.

Here are the three most important things to know about the land law:

First, the law established five basic categories: private land, state public land, state private land, monastery land, and indigenous land. 

Controversies around land often start from how an area is classified and whether the government will change its classification. For example, officials may decide that state public land — such as lakes, natural resources, forests and public amenities — is state private land once it has “lost its public interest use.” While communities have consistently argued that lakes, coasts and even degraded forests slated for private ownership or development still hold public interest value, the state can declare land as private without holding a public forum, let alone defining what constitutes “public interest use.” As soon as it is state private land, it can be gifted to individuals or entities — again without any clear or transparent process. 

This has allowed for the country’s mass land privatization drive in the last few years that has displaced thousands of people, including across Phnom Penh’s fast-disappearing lakes and Preah Sihanouk’s Prey Nob district.

Second, the law affirmed the right for people who had been living a “peaceful” and continuous existence for five years prior to the law’s adoption to request a title for ownership. In other words, Cambodians who had been living somewhere since at least 1996 are the legal owners of that land.

However, that concept has been little-respected and poorly implemented. Residents across the country, from the Unesco-listed Angkor Archaeological Park to Phnom Penh’s Boeng Chhouk wetland area to neighbors of an air force base in Kampong Chhnang, are embroiled in land disputes with companies or the government despite claiming to date their ownership back to the 1990s or 1980s. Even when residents have land titles or other documents that prove they’ve lived in a place since at least 1996, they still face eviction or property destruction, as witnessed by families living near new developments in Phnom Penh’s Boeng Tompun I commune. In Tbong Khmum province, 67 families have been involved in a protracted dispute with two companies since 2006, saying they have been trying unsuccessfully for years to secure land titles for their occupation dating back to 1985.

See here for further explanation of land titles.

Third, the law created rules for massive “economic land concessions” that began in the 1990s. An economic land concession is land that the government leases to a company or individual for clearing and agricultural development, for a maximum of 99 years. ELCs were originally established to lease land that the government did not have the resources to maintain, granting local or foreign companies the ability to develop sweeping plantations or tourism developments, provided they create a plan for development and pay taxes after an initial startup period.

The law states that ELCs cannot exceed 10,000 hectares, but in practice, tycoons or companies create multiple legal entities or rely on business partners or relatives to receive side-by-side concessions that surpass the legal limit. Some concessions that predated the law, such as Pheapimex’s 315,000 hectares in Kampong Chhnang and Pursat, remained in place despite mass protests and unrest among communities living there. In another notorious example, the government leased Union Development Group 36,000 hectares in Koh Kong province, claiming the lease was distinct from an ELC. The U.S. Treasury later sanctioned UDG for its activities related to the concession, alleging it was a Chinese state-owned entity that acted through Cambodian general Kun Kim to intimidate villagers, burn down their homes and clear land.

Click here to explore our ongoing database of land disputes.