Land conflict and deforestation are controversial and emotive issues in Cambodia. Although some analysts are prone to hyperbole and the use of polemics when talking about the issue, it is clear that land contestation and illegal logging are major problems that are affecting a significant portion of the rural and urban populace. Even if only half of the reported cases of land contestation as reported by Radio Free Asia, Voice of America and the Phnom Penh Post occurred (although there is no reason to hold such a doubt), this would still be an outlandishly high incidence of land contestation. In one week in mid-December 2011, for instance, Radio Free Asia reported on seven major cases of land contestation. In all likelihood, there are probably many major cases that go unreported.

There is often an implicit assumption, made by some analysts of Cambodia, that there is something uniquely tolerant about the Cambodian constituency. Sometimes this is suggested as coming from cultural factors — Buddhist notions of karma and hierarchy and sometimes as coming from a history of violent conflict. It is common within development and research circles to hear of the rural Cambodian constituency as passive and scared. Such notions often find traction alongside ideas surrounding ‘Democracy with Asian values’ — the idea that there is something innate in Asians where they are particularly willing to tolerate autocratic regimes and the plundering of state resources in exchange for economic development. But looking over the pattern of protest in Cambodia, particularly in the last year, there seems to be one clear commonality: when there are state sanctioned attacks on people’s land base, on people’s livelihood or people’s wages, and legalistic mechanisms miserably fail to deliver justice, people will take matters into their own hands. Hence in the last year there have been multiple cases of strikes with tyre burning by garment workers, clashes with Phnom Penh police during attempts to protect property, multiple occupations of national highways (the most notable being in Kompong Speu where a local town was violently taken over by protestors for several days) and countless clashes between local communities and police/security in relation to plantations and illegal logging.

In December 2011 there was a particularly notable protest in Kompong Thom Province which I was lucky enough to witness first hand and which also drew the attention of national and international media agencies such as Aljazeera. Many elements of the protest are notable as they challenge common assumptions about the nature of land contestation in Cambodia and people’s reactions to it. In particular I would like to challenge two commonly held assumptions — that Cambodians are somehow innately passive when it comes to politics and land contestation, and that legalistic mechanisms are the preferred, and superior way of dealing with conflict.

The protest in Kompong Thom consisted of around 330 protestors who had come from four different provinces which are all connected by one of the largest tracts of remaining evergreen forest in Southeast Asia — Prey Long. Many had walked several days to the protest site and a group I spoke to said they had walked for ten days through the forest from Stung Treing province. The event that started the protest was the establishment of a large land concession — granted to a Vietnamese company for rubber production, and the subsequent illegal felling of resin trees which are a major source of income for those living in the surrounding forest area.

Most of the participants had already been involved in a series of activities including a protest march in Phnom Penh which was attended by a few hundred people and an earlier confrontation with the rubber company which was also attended by over 400 people. Most people refrained from using the term ‘protest’ (сЮФсЮ╢сЮПсЮ╗сЮАсЮШсЯТсЮШ) to describe their activities and instead saw what they were doing as part of their regular duties as community forestry members or even as Cambodian citizens. “This isn’t a protest, we are just going to check on the company, to make sure they’re not cutting our wood illegally, and if we have to, we’ll confiscate illegal cuttings” (older female). It was also interesting that many of the participants had not yet directly been affected by the company’s activities, where they felt that any incursion into Prey Long represented a future threat to their forest and livelihoods – “we have to think about our children and grand children — at least we should save them something” (middle aged female participant).

As such, the participants arrived at the company gate and asked to enter into the premises to inspect the wood within the timber mill. Around 100 military police and soldiers had arrived in anticipation, and of course told them that they needed ‘special permission’ to gain entry into the premises and that the owner of the operations was in Phnom Penh and they should contact him. One of the protesters calmly relied “ok how about we wait ten minutes and then we will go in either way”. After six minutes they broke down the fence and went in. The police, outnumbered 3-1, were unable to stop them and the protestors occupied the company premises for the night.

The next day they continued their activities which led them to a site just outside the company compoun where luxury wood was being stored. Realising that the luxury wood was in fact the remains of their resin trees, and with no faith in the Forestry Administration which is responsible for the confiscation of illegally felled timber (and which had a station only one kilometre away which had given free range to private timber fellers), they decided to burn the wood. As the last of the wood (worth an estimated $100,000 US) was left smouldering, the same group of around 100 armed police and military arrived. Everything remained jovial and calm, with the people quietly chatting amongst themselves as if nothing had changed— that is until the police attempted to catch the ringleader. Within an instant over three hundred people — men, women and children — grabbed sticks and rocks and rushed to surround the police to ensure everyone remained together. As the soldiers raised their assault rifles, looking over at the foreign journalists present, the people raised their sticks and rocks. They escorted the ringleader, walking 11 kilometres back to the town, guarding him with sticks to ensure police couldn’t capture him on the way back.

This confrontation was not dissimilar to the many other confrontations which occured as a result of land disputes across Cambodia in the past year. Firstly, it was largely organic – primarily organised and orchestrated by participants rather than NGOs and in direct reaction to localised disputes. Although the charismatic leader associated with the diverse group was the head of a small NGO, the participants organised amongst themselves using phones to ring each other and organised several meetings in connecting villages. There were no schedules, agendas, outcomes or per diems. People met and took cooking pots and pans and collected food from the forest. Within the context of Cambodia where NGOs tend to see themselves as the sole legitimate actors who can represent village interests, it is often difficult to imagine people organising themselves autonomously from NGOs.

Also significant, and common to many resistance actions in Cambodia, is peoples ambivalence to the judicial mechanism for dealing with land disputes. This does not mean to say that people are not affected by foreign notions of justice and as one protestor put it “hopes [his] country can one day be like Australia”, but to note that they have little understanding or faith in foreign mechanisms that don’t apply to the day to day realities of governance in a Cambodian context. In the above mentioned Kompong Speu occupation, people gave up on a court case and instead placed their bets on going to the PM’s house directly in person. Interestingly, they also used framed images of the PM’s face against police batons (which says a lot about the way people understand power). In Andong Meas in Ratanakiri and Bousra in Mondulkiri, villagers directly confronted plantation workers and security as the first point of address (with knives in the case of Andong Meas and with torches to burn equipment in Bousra). Although many people speak of their hope that the law can help them to resolve land disputes, they also intimately understand that the ‘law’ is not something equally accessible to all, but a tool which is often used against those at the local level. Unlike in the global north where long held norms evolved into formal codified law, in Cambodia, customary law is largely pitted against a very recently established set of bureaucratic institutions and laws which are open to the elite to pick and choose from. Yet NGO’s are largely coerced – whether they actually believe in it or not – to follow the comfortable liberal conception of society as being composed of a government working in the interests of the people, an autonomous private sector, and a representative civil society – which are all held together by a set of liberal democratic laws. The problem of land contestation is therefore typically articulated as a lack of capacity on the part of government officials and citizens, and the need for stronger institutions (hence the constant talk of ‘good governance’ and ‘capacity development’ within the NGO community).

The typical NGO solution to land contestation is therefore training on the land law, or going through the convoluted process of establishing a community forestry group or becoming registered as an indigenous community (in order to receive community land entitlement under the 2001 Land Law). The government happily encourages these mechanisms, continuing to grant large scale concessions as NGOs and communities are forced to jump through a never ending set of legalistic hoops. At the same time the government condemns direct action and continues to imprison activists while the majority of NGOs tend to remain ambivalent on direct actions or even look down on them. While at a recent ‘day of activism’ (listening to speeches by government officials) in Ratanakiri on gender violence attracted over 60 NGOs – all making sure to have their logos printed on large colourful posters and pamphlets, the direct action in Kompong Thom attracted only two. In the liberal democratic version of society the state is always capable of working in the interests of the people and seen as a partner in development. Yet in the context of Cambodia, natural resource extraction and the process of alienating people from their land base is totally dependent on the state bureaucracy and associated power networks – in other words it is largely the state doing the extracting and alienating so it should seem somewhat strange to hold out the hope that such an actor would be at the forefront of solving these problems.

The point of all this is not to entirely dismiss NGO efforts which attempt to engage the government or NGO efforts to resolve land disputes through legalistic mechanisms. The point is to argue for more balance and caution in such approaches. Much of the development industry is cautious about the two active human rights NGOs and the only Khmer language radio service that reports on land issues (Radio Free Asia) and often suggestions are made that they are biased and aligned with the opposition party. AusAID in its youth Ambassador programme for instance rejects applications for volunteer placements in the two human rights NGOs. Yet the same caution and risk management does not seem to be applied when working with the government under the banner of ‘good governance’ and ‘capacity development’ where vast sums of human and capital resources are supplied to its many ministries.

A similar lack of balance is often a characteristic of approaches to land contestation. Under the rhetoric of partnership and good governance, any mechanism which isn’t legalistic in nature or framed in terms of working in cooperation with government actors, is deemed as provocative, unhelpful and even illegal. During a one year research assignment with the largest NGO in the northeast, I expressed my desire to critically look at the Land Law and question whether the convoluted process of becoming a registered indigenous community (which very few villages can ever make it to the end of) was always in the interests of indigenous people. I was told by my foreign research advisor that such a position would be biased and compromise the high standard of research of the NGO. Yet few people seem to consider it problematic when NGOs and donors, through their support for establishing and implementing forest laws, land laws and land demarcation activities, sometimes inadvertently legitimise the government’s interests in controlling and exploiting locally managed land. Far from being resistant to new laws and bureaucratic mechanisms for managing land, the Government has enthusiastically used these new institutions and laws to push its own interests while NGOs are largely left behind to work within the framework of an imaginary utopian liberal democratic society.

The World Bank – which is typically the target of criticism over large scale development schemes — has been one of the few donors to send a clear message to the Royal Government of Cambodia when it ceased supporting the multimillion dollar land titling scheme last year, and halted all further loans this year due to the controversies over the Bung Kak evictions in Phnom Penh. It has been suggested that due to problems in the land sector, USAID has also cancelled its annual consultancy meeting with the government which was typically the site at which aid pledges for the next year are made. Yet in the most part, international aid has been increasing year by year and land law training and registration (especially in the north east) has become an ever popular area for donors to sink their money into.

It is unlikely that within the short term the many diverse confrontations between factory workers and bosses, urban residents and local authorities, and rural residents and concessionaires will transform into anything that resembles the Arab Spring revolutions. Nor do these confrontations have many similar characteristics to the ‘Occupy’ movement which is spreading across the industrialised north. Yet something very important is happening in Cambodia – twenty years of quite discontent over the failed promises of development for all and a modern liberal justice system, are manifesting in an ever increasing number of localised challenges to state authority. Could the issue of land decisively destroy the rosy expectations of development in Cambodia which have been persistent over the last decade, and if so where will the massive number of NGOs which have forged close partnerships with the government be left standing?