By Chris Arsenault
SRE AMBEL DISTRICT, Cambodia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A group of farmers who survived the Khmer Rouge's notorious "Killing Fields" genocide in Cambodia are at the center of a landmark legal case that could change the way global corporations manage large-scale land acquisitions, experts say.
More than 400 families from a sleepy rural hamlet in Sre Ambel district in south-western Cambodia say they were pushed off their farms to make way for sugar plantations.
The villagers are part of a larger group of about 770,000 Cambodians – or five percent of the nation's population – taking action for being forced off at least four million hectares of land, according to a lawyer presenting their case at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague.
After taking power in 1975, the Khmer Rouge destroyed property records and forced urban residents into the countryside in pursuit of a peasant utopia, killing at least 1.8 million people during a four-year reign.
Human rights attorneys say the ICC could decide by the end of the year whether the case - launched against the Cambodian government and business leaders on behalf of the farmers - should proceed.
Legal experts say the case is internationally significant as it could change the way community displacement in the wake of large-scale land deals is tested and prosecuted under international law.
"We all survived the genocide of the Khmer Rouge and started a new life but we have nothing after they took our land," rice farmer, Chhim Phan, 45, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation outside his house 160 km (100 miles) west of Phnom Penh.
His wife cried as she spoke of appealing to neighbors and charities to feed their children after losing the family's rice paddies - their only source of income.
"We have tried to file complaints (with local authorities) but it hasn't worked," said Phan.
"Maybe if there is a trial (at the ICC) the people would get justice. It would stop other leaders from plundering the property of people."
Cambodian officials, however, dismiss the ICC case as a ploy by a local opposition party to gain attention and smear the image of the national government which, they say, has reduced poverty and delivered fast economic growth.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, a self-styled strongman, and former Khmer Rouge official, has ruled Cambodia for three decades.
Phay Siphan, a spokesman for Cambodia's Council of Ministers, said the government "is not at all concerned about this case" and do not think it will go ahead. He would not say if the government has hired a lawyer to defend its interests.
"The lawyers launched this case just for their own personal interests," Siphan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview. "We don't give it any value."
Richard Rogers, a partner with British-based law firm Global Diligence LLP, said he was optimistic the ICC would give the green light to the case, launched in 2014, because of a change in the way serious international crimes can be prosecuted.
The ICC's chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, signaled in September that the court will start investigating cases of large-scale environmental destruction and what she called "land grabs" as severe violations of international law.
Legal experts have interpreted this statement as a major shift in the court's approach with Cambodia the test case.
"This is a big deal," said Kaitlin Y. Cordes, a lawyer who analyses territorial deals at the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment in New York.
"It puts governments and companies on notice that the ICC will be taking a closer look at some of these widespread land grabs," Cordes told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"If the Cambodia case went to trial and won, it would mean individuals would be found guilty of crimes against humanity."
Authorities in the Southeast Asian nation of 15 million people do not believe the litigation will go ahead.
Seng Laut, spokesperson for the Land Ministry said the number of territorial conflicts in Cambodia has been dropping rapidly - a claim that is supported by campaign groups.
"The cause of land conflict in Cambodia is our history," said Laut, who refused to comment directly on the ICC case.
Prior to the genocide, farmers would apply dye to the borders of their plots in waterlogged rice fields to mark out their property to other growers.
Farmers in Sre Ambel said such traditional systems of land demarcation worked as everyone in the close-knit community understood which families controlled different plots based on historical claims and local knowledge, rather than title deeds.
But these systems were destroyed during the genocide with the influx of urban residents, farmers said.
Since 1992, the government has been rebuilding its property registry amid work to facilitate Cambodia's transition from a state-based to a market economy, Laut said.
Invariably, he added, there have been some disputes along the way. Officials said they're working to reduce conflict by monitoring companies which are granted land concessions for breaches of contract or unfair displacement of residents.
Laut refused to comment on specific cases but said the government's large-scale land titling program aims to have all of the country's land formally registered by 2023. This should drastically reduce the level of conflicts, he said.
"Everything came from zero, like a baby," Laut told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"ONLY FOR THE RICH"
The origins of the dispute in Sre Ambel, revealed in one of the documents presented to the ICC, date back to 2006.
Files viewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation show that Cambodian authorities granted land concessions to two sugar plantation operators who received just less than 10,000 hectares each, the maximum allowed by law.
Koh Kong Sugar, a plantation operator and milling company operated by Thai and Taiwanese investors at the center of the land dispute in Sre Ambel, did not respond to requests for comment made in writing and in person.
British-based confectionary firm Tate & Lyle had sourced sugar from Cambodia before it was criticized by Oxfam and other campaign groups for allegedly supporting land grabs.
A company spokesman said the firm stopped all sourcing from Cambodia in 2012, stressing the reputational risks - and now the legal risks with the ICC - businesses face when their supply chains are linked to displacement.
Teng Kao, 55, said he owned 14 hectares of land growing rice, jackfruit and cashew nuts before the company arrived with bulldozers and he was glad the case was before the ICC.
"The land concessions don't benefit the poor at all, just the rich," said Kao, whose two children left the area in search of work after the land was taken.
"I want the government to be held responsible," said Kao, who has unsuccessfully filed petitions with local officials and marched to the capital seeking compensation or new land.
Analysts say the possibility that companies involved in displacing entire communities could be prosecuted internationally should force firms to change the way they manage their supply chains.
If the ICC case is allowed to proceed, Cordes said it would affect the way companies calculate risk when buying commodities sourced from areas affected by large-scale land disputes.
"Investors need to be doing proper community engagement on the ground and greater transparency about intentions," she said.
Villagers in Sre Ambel who lost land say they hope more companies follow Tate & Lyle in light of the ICC case.
Sitting outside his ramshackle wooden house near a highway, with a cow tied up nearby, Phan said the sugar company wants his last remaining half-hectare of land and would have taken it already if dozens of villagers not turned up to protest.
"No-one listens," he said.
(Reporting By Chris Arsenault, Editing by Paola Totaro and Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)