Themes /

Land & violence in Cambodia

Chris Baker Evens

Manna Matters June 2010


Violence in Kampot

 Centred on village Kilo Dawp Pi, Kampot Province, the Wing Huor Co., owned by an Khmer-Australian, is filling in 1000 hectares of shallow coastal waters where local villages daily catch fish, crabs and squid. The Keo Chea company is next door filling in 200 hectares. Villagers are concerned that they won't be able to access their fishing grounds nor make ends meet, and claim that daily catches are down significantly since the fillings began.

 Natural resources are the foundation of the livelihoods of the vast majority of people in Cambodia. And Kampot has many of these, including fish, crab, shrimp, squid, sea grasses, salt, pepper, coconut, durian, and rice. As Cambodia emerges from decades of military and political turmoil, and the world seeks to guarantee food for an ever growing population, Cambodia's natural resources, primarily land, are up for sale. Key natural resources are sold off, or made use of, for agribusiness, hydro-power plants, mining, logging, special economic zones, factories and sky-scrapers. The people who are the heart and soul of Cambodia experience this as economic and cultural destruction.

 At the end of 2009 the National Assembly passed the Expropriations Law, the Senate approving it in just 60 minutes, making it legal for the government to sell off inhabited land, forests and fisheries for "the public good". With the Khmer Rouge a living memory the majority of Cambodians feel their government is "on the right track" and are unwilling to rock the boat. Despite legal protection, compensation to affected communities is an attempt to pacify the victims rather than a sincere attempt to offset the cost to their livelihoods.

Recently BKK Partners, of whom former Treasurer Peter Costello is a managing director, announced a $600 million investment in Cambodia promising jobs and technical improvements to farming practices, as well as great profits to investors. This is part of a larger picture. In the aftermath of the global food crisis countries with booming populations and limited land space have been seeking land to grow crops. Countries like Qatar, Kuwait, Korea, China, Vietnam and others seek to purchase arable land in Cambodia. The map below highlights the extent of the trend, but is innaccurate to specifics given the regular practice of governmental non-disclosure regarding details of many land deals.

In practice, the Cambodian government awards land concessions to currently occupied areas. These decisions are made by the Cambodian Development Council which is headed by the Prime Minister Hun Sen. On the CDC's website potential investors are assured when conflicts with local communities occur a specially appointed grievance mechanism of the CDC, also headed by the Prime Minister, will move to smooth over tensions with local inhabitants. As far as an investor is concerned this is a great deal. For local communities how can they expect to negotiate with the vaunted power of the Prime Minister?

As always, the poor as well as ethnic and religious minority groups are most at risk. Numerous communities have already been forcibly evicted, relocated, their land and access to natural resources confiscated. People have died, suffered beatings, torture and gone to prison. All under the watchful eye of international organisations like the World Trade Organisation, World Bank, Asian Development Bank, as well as country donors like Australia.


 Transforming Conflict Nonviolently

At the core of the problem is the disenfranchisement of local communities. They lack real representation and voice in the places of political, economic and legal power, all of which are geared to ensuring the powerful get what they want. But as many countries have demonstrated over the years, the people also wield power. Indeed, in Madagascar, roughly half the arable land was to be given over to South Korea’s Daewoo Logistics in a massive deal. The populous took to the streets, the government lost power and the deal sank to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

There are three basic ways to respond to conflict. Passivity ignores the problem hoping it will go away. Counter Violence fights back inflicting damaging wounds on the opponent so they are no longer a threat. The third way of responding, nonviolence, says, "your needs and interests are valid, and so are mine. I will not let you pursue your goals at the detriment of my fundamental needs".

In Cambodia the poor have learned to keep quiet. There is a well known saying, "when the elephants dance the ants die". Better to keep out of the way of the elephants in their “dance”, for the wealthy and powerful are continuously struggling. Alliances, revenge attacks, and power plays all factor in to Cambodia's political life. So, for the most part nonviolence is off the scene - or so it seems.

Starting from the end of the Khmer Rouge domination of Cambodia, Maha Ghosananda championed the "third way" of nonviolence to all Cambodians. A Buddhist monk, he studied nonviolence in India and was on a 7-year meditation retreat when the American bombings began, his entire family killed, and the Khmer Rouge took control of Phnom Penh. He strongly desired to return to Cambodia but his retreat master encouraged him to seek mindfulness first and return at a time when he could make a significant impact on Cambodia. That happened in 1978 while refugees streamed across the Cambodia-Thailand border. He set up peace pagodas in refugee camps openly welcoming both refugees and Khmer Rouge cadres without bias.

Maha Ghosananda said, “It is a law of the universe that retaliation, hatred, and revenge only continue the cycle and never stop it. Reconciliation does not mean that we surrender rights and conditions, but rather that we use love in our negotiations. Our wisdom and our compassion must walk together. Having one without the other is like walking on one foot; you will fall. Balancing the two, you will walk very well, step by step.”

Maha Ghosananda is best known for the Dhammayietras, or peace pilgrimages, through war torn Cambodia. Maha Ghosananda's approach is somewhat unique in the annals of nonviolence as it comes across as unusually non-confrontational. However, reading the histories of the Dhammayietras it's evident that Maha Ghosananda was confrontational, “Don’t struggle with people, with men. Struggle with the goals and conditions that make men fight each other.”. His fight was with violence, not with people. At that time the most overt and destructive form of violence was war and the spectre of reprisal violence. He sought to bring Cambodians together, to put away their desire and trust in revenge, and build a new country on forgiveness, seeing that all Cambodians have a place in the new society. Without this inclusive view he believed the Khmer Rouge would never lay down their weapons and the war would rage on.

Now that war is gone Cambodia has what Dr Martin Luther King Jr. calls, a 'negative peace'. There are no guns killing but there is little justice or freedom from oppression. A new Dhammayietra is needed. A pilgrimage not just of feet, but of the hearts and minds of the people of Cambodia, to stand up against the injustices of land-grabbing, forced evictions, land expropriation, judicial collaboration, political intimidation, destruction of forests, the filling in of vital coastal waters, damming of crucial waterways and the exporting of all the benefits of Cambodia's natural resources while benefiting only the elite.


Building on the Nonviolent Story

 A recent study by Maria J. Stephen and Erica Chenoweth revealed that nonviolent resistance is far more successful at achieving it's aims than violent resistance (53% versus 26%).[1] There is no need for a violent movement in Cambodia. And the odds are against one succeeding. Yet the potential is there. High inequality, a high number of youth compared to aged population, low education, few job prospects, expropriation of natural resources and little exposure to nonviolent options all add to the likelihood of a violent response.

To avert a violent upheaval, and go beyond passive denial, the engagement in positive nonviolent social transformation is possible. It requires, amongst the general population, a deep awareness of what is happening to the county. Training in the history, theory and practice of nonviolence is needed amongst key at-risk groups to foster a strategic and disciplined movement. Popularising the stories of nonviolence in Cambodia and the world will engage the imagination of people who are frustrated and unsure what to do. Training in how social movements progress will foster a long-term perspective that can be maintained in the face of short-term struggles. Finally, a willingness to experience suffering rather than inflict will actualise freedom from injustice. The risks must be clearly stated and honestly discussed. No nonviolent movement is without risk. But the odds are good.


Chris Baker Evens has lived in Cambodia for the past 6 years with his wife and two children. They recently moved to Kampot province to support local community story projects. Chris also writes and trains on nonviolence. His blog, The Nonviolent Story, is found at



[1] Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict” International Security, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Summer 2008), pp. 7–44.