Corruption, Landgrabbing and Me

Like so many guys, within a few days of arriving in Phnom Penh for the first time in my life, I met a lovely girl. We had a few polite conversations at arms’ length and within a week she told me, flanked by her friends, that she loved me. I didn’t take her seriously even when she explained that a key ‘selling point’ was that I was committed to staying in Cambodia, her country that she loved and never wanted to leave.

A few weeks later she returned to her province of Kompong Speu since she was offered a job and good salary as an accountant in a garment factory. She told me the decision depended on me but I insisted it was nothing to do with me. I didn’t see or hear from her for a year. At a point when I had just extricated myself from a complicated relationship with a kleptomanic gambling addict, she emailed me out of the blue to inform me that her auntie in America had sent over a nice gentleman to marry her, an arrangement of which her parents approved. Apparently after a year of insisting that she had a boyfriend in whom she was very much in love, the relations were getting skeptical, and so she contacted me to ask me confirm that I had no interest in her. I figured I should see her in order to make such a decision. As soon as I did I realized that she had matured a lot in a year. The American was sent packing and we had three or four dinner-dates before I realized that the next step ought to be a marriage proposal.

I was familiar enough with conservative Cambodian culture to know that marriage is not to the individual but to the family, so I could only marry a girl who truly came from a decent and honourable family. As soon as I met the parents I could see that they had true integrity; her father was famous and respected throughout the community for being just about the only commune chief to refuse all temptation to enrich himself at his charges expense. As a result, they were a respected but poor family.

Soon after our wedding we let it be known that we wished to invest in some land. My father-in-law was contacted by another community in the same province to let us know that some land was for sale. We had to haggle, but there was no thought of charging me a ‘barang tax’, and we bought just over ten hectares of land for a price of $1000 per hectare. It was a prime roadside plot that was part of a thousand hectare area, the rest being retained by villagers including the village chief, local police and the farmer who sold our plot to us. Four months later we were being inundated with offers to sell, rising to $40,000, but we had plans to clear the land to use it for agriculture. Then land prices suddenly crashed at the same time that our plans to start preparing the land floundered due to inadequate finance.

After a while my wife and I started an agricultural-based business and turned our attention back towards our land. Just at this time my wife received a desperate phone call from the policeman of the community. Over a crazy period of some 48 hours a load of bulldozers accompanied by armed military police had swarmed over the land, destroyed houses, beaten villagers and fenced off 1000 hectares. By the time we got there the blitzkrieg was complete. At the same time on the news a well-known politician was giving speeches about the goal of developing agriculture to enrich the nation with the help of loans from the EU. It soon became apparent that he himself had signed the order to grab the land and hand it over to another politician.

A few weeks later an EU delegation made a visit to the site of our land grab together with a similar site in Koh Kong. They expressed their horror at the inadvertent consequence of their noble “Everything But Arms” trade initiative – land was being stolen from ordinary Cambodians so that ruling party senators could use the EU money to begin sugar plantations, the profits from the EU’s guaranteed minimum buying price being unlikely to benefit many citizens of Cambodia. Altogether the EU delegation estimated that the politician in question had illegally got his hands on 90,000 hectares with the help of this EU money. The European head of the delegation, who was singularly unimpressed with the untruths told to her by both the sugar company and government ministers she spoke to, wrote to me regretting the situation and coined the phrase “blood sugar” to describe the outcome.

Whilst many of the landowners had had their homes and livelihoods destroyed, and had been physically assaulted, I initially told myself that we had only lost land and money. However, the events had a traumatic effect on my family. By this time my father-in-law was very sick with cancer (he has since passed away, a week ago). In those last few months of his life he began to question out loud whether he’d been a fool to have lived a life of honesty and integrity in Cambodia. He felt responsible that he had recommended the land to us because he knew the sellers to be decent people, and he regretted that he had left his family poor due to his fairness whilst other unscrupulous people in positions of power were giving their families a good life. A good man’s spirit was crushed.

He wasn’t the only one. All her life my wife had been a proud Cambodian. She used to get angry at me whenever I made one of my frequent snipes at the society. She says the incident opened her eyes and she immediately saw all the things I’d pointed out to her for years. She came to loathe her homeland. She announced that she was ashamed to be Cambodian and urged me to take her away so that she could gain citizenship of a civilized nation. When I announced to my students that I would be leaving and explained the reasons, the reactions were quite surprising to me. I was expecting the kind of lines I was getting from some expats on K440: ‘Well, the country’s not perfect but look at the progress’, or, ‘I’m sure the government was within its rights; it’s probably your fault’.

Instead, nearly all of them were of one mind in being wearily depressed about the all-pervasive corruption that crushes their spirits too. They told me, ‘We know; if only we could get away like you’. My students are supposed to be the future of Cambodia, the next generation of intelligentsia that will move Cambodia forward. They don’t see that. They see themselves as helpless, impotent to change anything. Their attitudes vary between ‘Can’t beat ‘em, might as well join ‘em’ to ‘I’ll just struggle to take care of myself and my family while keeping my head down’. Looking into their eyes, I saw little signs of hope for the future.

And that is what corruption does. A lot of expats live on the surface of Cambodian society and don’t share the experiences of most Cambodians, so they make light of corruption. It does more than irritate a person who has to hand over a couple of dollars to the traffic cops; corruption corrodes the very soul of a nation. I am convinced that it is corruption, not simply ‘poverty’ that is at the root of the appalling state of health care and education in Cambodia. It takes away hope. I hear people accuse ordinary Cambodians of being lazy and dishonest. They know all too well where hard work and honesty gets them, and contrast that with the way in which the powerful gain their wealth. Corruption is the cancer of Cambodia.

Sources : Phnom Penh Post front pages of 20/5/11 and 23/5/11

22 thoughts on “Corruption, Landgrabbing and Me

    • bobbie lee swagger Reply

      pieces like urs , if read , r of INESTIMABLE value in warning foreigners of involvement , in any way , other than on a short time basis , w/ the natives .

      they think and act differently . not goodly or badly , just differently . it serves NO PURPOSE to evaluate their actions using western standards .

      what’s a little unbelievable about ur piece is the surprised , indignant reaction of ur wife’s family and ur students . i mean , it’s THEIR country and this sh*t goes on every hour of every day .

      finally , note to self : CONTINUE not to “invest” in anything here and to be able to get on an hour’s notice .

      • falcon randwick Reply

        note to bobbie lee: ur pathetic use of SMS-style abbreviation is irritating and infantile. If you have spare time enough to consider replying to internet stories, I’m sure you have enough time to write without such irksome twitter-trend writing.

    • keithcowans Reply

      nice story for sure,there is very little hope for cambodia,without another revolution and war,these countries have to do this now and then,remove the trash and start again,the sooner the better,these ex-khymer rouge thugs have to go

  1. Traveling Ed Reply

    Excellent telling of a tragic situation, both the incident and the ongoing issue.

  2. Bob Riley Reply

    Thanks for sharing your story Andy, I’ve read about this particular case in the papers, sadly it seems all too common.

    May I ask whether or not you had a hard title for your land or a soft title from the sangkat/commune? I’m interested because these kind of details never make it into the press and I’m not sure whether it even matters.

  3. Casey Nelson Reply

    Excellent read. And an important contribution to the body of work on the issue.

    You highlight really the only reason I have never invested in real estate in this country – because if I make the mistake of making a good investment and somebody with more power than me wants it, there is no recourse. Laws, courts, contracts mean nothing when going against the connected.

  4. andyinasia Reply

    bobbie lee: please don’t generalise about ‘the natives’. I was the only foreigner to suffer in this situation; THOUSANDS (est. 30K last year) or ordinary, decent Cambodians have gone through the same nightmare. They hate it every bit as much but feel powerless to act.

    Bob R: I avoided that topic for reasons of space. We had soft title. It is important to understand that in the countryside, everyone has soft title. About three years ago the World Bank decided to help and gave the government a large loan to convert soft titles to hard, free of charge. Inevitably, the robber-barons twisted to wrest land out of the hands of ordinary folk and grab it themselves. In the end the WB cancelled the project. There are plenty cases of people with hard title having their land grabbed if the corrupt elite want it anyway, and in this case the government made a compulsory purchase order without bothering to find out who the owners were, so I doubt it made a difference.

  5. Pingback:Corruption, Landgrabbing and Me » Little Kingdoms In Your Chest

  6. violet Reply

    “They don’t see that. They see themselves as helpless, impotent to change anything.”

    This is how a huge amount of non-Cambodians feel about the state of the world. The majority of the human race is feeling helpless and impotent to change anything. Why should Cambodian students feel any different?

    There are a few young Cambodians(I have no idea of how many in reality) who want to try to make a difference but know that it has to come in minute steps. They feel that change will come eventually. They know it will be slow in coming.

    I think they have more hope for Cambodia than for what I have in the world in general.

    Put me in the camp that feels impotent to change things.

  7. violet Reply

    “It takes away hope. I hear people accuse ordinary Cambodians of being lazy and dishonest. They know all too well where hard work and honesty gets them, and contrast that with the way in which the powerful gain their wealth. Corruption is the cancer of Cambodia.”

    This is a very true statement.

  8. Dermot Sheehan Reply

    “About three years ago the World Bank decided to help and gave the government a large loan to convert soft titles to hard, free of charge.”

    It would be my understanding that the World Bank program was actually in the main successful, and gave proper hard titles to property for the first time to millions of citizens.

  9. andyinasia Reply

    Partially, but there was plenty of abuse. See this article, for instance:

    and this report from earlier this year, beginning;
    “The World Bank Inspection Panel has finalized its investigation into a $28.8 million landtitling project in Cambodia, following a complaint that Bank policies were flagrantly disregarded during project implementation, leaving more than 20,000 people facing forced
    eviction from their homes in central Phnom Penh.”

  10. andyinasia Reply

    One more recent article that states, “…the Management Report presents a forthright picture of the difficulties encountered in carrying out a complex land administration reform and titling project with multiple objectives in a socio-political context that is difficult to reconcile (to say the least) with classic rule of law principles…

  11. PenhMan Reply

    Superb piece, Andy, just about perfect. I think your conclusion that the real depressant on Cambodian initiative and spirit is the corruption makes a lot of sense.

  12. Soi Dog Reply

    Good article, Andy. But how do you know the farmer who sold you the land had absolute legal right to do so? Or the person who sold it to him, and so on? There must have been a chaotic land grab free-for-all back in 1979/1980. Ownership is bound to be murky at best.

    • Willem Reply

      Soi Dog: There was actually a redistribution of land in 1989 that came with the reintroduction of private ownership. This was apparently (according to Caroline Hughes) quite equitable, but this has since given way to a situation where the top 10% own 64% of the land and the top 1% own 20-30%.

  13. Rhodri Reply

    That is a really sad story. Not surprising given Cambodia’s record on these issues but dispiriting.

    Note to CPP: distinct echoes here of the types of pieces I recall reading about certain societies prior to the Arab Spring.

  14. Jack Reply

    Good article Andy, and exactly my view, corruption is far more poisonous than just being a “tax” on growth.
    I am surprised your students so readily concurred however.
    My experience is that Khmers are rather proud of their culture, if not their material situation, and while they will happily proclaim their love and admiration for all things western , their actions do not follow. It’s all a big red carpet act.

  15. Rubberbaron Reply

    Having been involved in a few land deals and without wanting to paint a positive picture about the King of Koh Kong, I can say this: the hard title makes all the difference. A hard title for 10 ha would have cost up to $25,000. These ‘land-grabbers’ are rarely aware who owns what land. They send in their underlings who check the local land office and find that this is state land since most villagers simply fail to register their ownership – out of sheer ignorance. In the majority of those land-grabbing cases the local people cannot provide documents of their ownership.

    Your statement that plenty of people with hard titles got their land grabbed is simply not true.

  16. Gary Gilmour's Eyes Reply

    Rubberbaron is totally correct-a hard title does protect you against landgrabbing. On August 23rd., The Cambodia Daily reported a major land grab in Anlong Veng when a Thai company was given a large economic land concession. I have the only hard titled land in the district. The concession ends right at the boundary of my land. This is no co-incidence. The Dept. of Land Management confirmed with my lawyer that I had been deliberately excluded from the grab because of the hard title.
    When I bought the land, I was told by the locals that a hard title was not necessary-noone had one. Luckily, I decided to follow the law. People with sanghat registration received next to nothing in compensation. Those with provincial registration were paid about half current market value. The only ones excluded were my immediate neighbours, because of their proximity to my land.
    It is obvious to anyone who lives here for a substantial time that Khmers are ignorant of or indifferent to the laws of their country. That is not a reason to follow their example and subsequently blame the government for enforcing the law. Would you buy untitled land in your own country from someone who told you it wasn’t a problem? If not, why do it here?
    If prospective buyers are interested in costs, my initial 15 hectare purchase cost $8000, a figure inflated by its proximity to the Thai border. Figures are calculated per sq. metre and are reduced for subsequent purchases. I was charged less than half the original rate for a recent purchase of adjoining land.

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