Category Archives: History

Land Ownership after the Khmer Rouge

Siem Reap

Source: Molyvann, Vann. Modern Khmer Cities. Phnom Penh, Cambodia : Reyum ; [Chicago, IL?] : Sales and distribution, USA, Art Media Resources, c2003.


Decree of April 22, 1989

Article One of this Decree declared that all goods, whether moveable or immovable, located within the territory of Cambodia were the collective property of the Cambodian people and no property rights prior to 1979 would be recognized.

Article Two of this Decree gave the rights of property to the actual inhabitants of the property and authorized them to transfer those rights by inheritance or sale, provided that foreigners did not benefit from such a transfer.

Article Three of this Decree established the principal of land taxation.

Article Four of this Decree instituted a procedure ro officially establishing land claims through the deposit of a request and the obtaining of a previsionary certificate of occupation.

The Constitution of April 30, 1989

Article 14 of the new constitution defined the public domain of the State. Article 15 of the new Constitution recognized the rights of possession and use of land by Cambodia citizens living on it. Article 18 categorically prohibited all forced confiscations of the property of citizens. Article 18 also, however, authorized expropriation of certain property if and only if it was necessary for the public good, and if and only if proper indemnity was offered for seized property.

The Instruction of June 3, 1989

The instruction related that no pre-1979 land claims were to be honored, and that the State could not undo the redistribution of land which had taken place after January 7, 1989. The instruction also clarified and detailed the procedure for officially procuring ownership rights. In order to make a land claim, the head of a family had to request authorization for occupancy from the People’s committee of the district, commune, and village according to models provided by the Agricultural Service. Applications for land occupancy documents should be submitted from the day of instruction. After December 31, 1989 the State would consider all land with no claims laid on it as free and unappropriated.

The Land Law of August 11, 1992

The law reintroduced the right of individuals to own property. The first section of the law defined the notion of property and enumerated different types of ownership (propriety, temporary possession, authorization to cultivate, concession, ownership for a life time, right to use etc.) The second section of the law regulated the acquisition of property and affirmed the inalienable rights of both the public and private domains. Article 74 states that the peaceful, continuous, well-intentioned inhabitation of a property for more than five years – provided that this habitation was publicly acknowledged without ambiguity – would henceforth transform into legal possession of the property, provided that there were no contestations and that the property had been properly registered. A property which had ben unoccupied for three consecutive years automatically became State property.

The Law of Assignment of Properties of January 29, 1993

This short six article law regulates the division of properties between the State and the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). After January 29, 1993, any building occupied by either the State of the CPP was declared as their respective property. The CPP seemingly benefited from this law since any law since any building it occupied immediately became its property without the intermediate step of possession, taxation and use for a period of five years required for all ordinary Cambodian citizens under the Land Law. Although this law was modified in 1993 following legislative elections sponsored by the United Nations, the legacy of victory property still lingers today.

The Constitution of September 21, 1993

Article 44 of the new constitution reaffirmed the right to own private property but stipulated that only Cambodia citizens could own property in Cambodia. The Constitution also reiterated that the expropriation of property could only take place if the property was needed for the public good.

Restoring Ankgor Wat

Source: Molyvann, Vann. Modern Khmer Cities. Phnom Penh, Cambodia : Reyum ; [Chicago, IL?] : Sales and distribution, USA, Art Media Resources, c2003.

Map of Angkor


“If the hydraulic system of Angkor should be restored and reutilized, then what actions can be taken to prevent the dangers of geological movement and systematic collapse? Few immediate measures are at our disposal. We can, however, propose some counter measures to the vices of the system outlined by Groslier. These counter measures include reforestation of the Kulens as well as the preservation of the remaining Forest of the Temples; restoration of the reservoirs, lakes and ponds; restoration and protection of an adequate ground water level; and anti-erosion measures along the rivers. Measures should also be taken to stop excess siltation in the Greak Lake, and navigation channels should be dredged and kept open in it. Most importantly, ambitious development plans which risk destroying the already precarious ecological equilibrium of the region (for example, the project to dam the Great lake proposed by the Mekong Commission in 1964) should be stopped.”

Great Lake

Ecological Zones

The Rise + Fall of Angkor

Source: Molyvann, Vann. Modern Khmer Cities. Phnom Penh, Cambodia : Reyum ; [Chicago, IL?] : Sales and distribution, USA, Art Media Resources, c2003.

Angkor Sunrise

p 13

“…the first hydraulic city of Angkor, a settlement linking water to economic, social and religious systems…

“…a city with moats which mirrored, in reduced form, the cosmology of the Brahmanic universe as a series of concentric mountains and oceans.”

“…irrigation networks joined existing forms of irrigation found on the lower plans which made use of the rising flood waters of the Great Lake. The region thus had a double supply of water from the baray (reservoir) to flood its rice fields. With these two sources of water, at least three crops of rice could be produced per year.”

p 46 Description

Flood Zones

“B.P. Groslier has described hydraulic cities as based on a highly productive system of irrigation carefully adapted to the region in which these were established… They “baray” filled through the monsoon rains (June to October) and the accompanying flood of the revers; rice planted during the dry season (that is, with sowing and transplanting in September and October, and harvest in January and February) then made full use of the water in the baray. If the monsoon season brought little rain or was too short, the baray along with the Great Lake still allowed the rice fields to be filled with water when necessary. Thus even if the irrigation system tied to the hydraulic city did not always permit two (or even three) harvests, it still could guarantee at least one harvest of rice per season, thus overcoming unforeseen variations in climate.”

p 47 Decline


Hypothesis 1: Geological movement of the tectonic plate of the basin of the Great Lake which could, in the end, have disturbed the water supply of the system.

“SPAFA Journal #- Dr. Heng L. Thung : “Angkor may have been condemned, even before it was constructed, by a slow geological movement which led to a change in the slope of rivers and their beds, rendering the huge Khmer water reservoirs unusable. Over the centuries, the slow, level and meandering rivers which fed these reservoirs changed their profiles and their course. The city depended on reservoirs for its water supply during the dry season which coincided with the retreat of the flood waters of the Lake.”

“Physical evidence for such movements can be found in the landscape of the present. The Siem Reap River was constructed artificially to provide water to the moats of Angkor Wat…The intakes of the baray were originally two meters below the surface, thus matching the original water level of the man-made Siem Reap River….The sinking of the stream bed, accompanied by lower water levels during the dry season, has rendered the intakes to the reservoirs useless as the water level diminished.”

Hypothesis 2: Vices of structure which were inherent in the hydraulic system used at Angkor from the moment it was established, and which in the end caused the general blockage of the system.

A. Deforestation: In methodically extending their rice fields toward Phnom Kulen, the Khmers necessarily deforested large areas of land. The effects of this deforestation, especially on the hills and higher elevations which served as water reservoirs, are well known. Initial rivulets washed away portions of the soil while the remaining soil became compacted. Gullies then formed and large scale erosion of the soil followed. Large areas of bare earth led to a decrease in convection rains once caused by water evaporation from areas of foliage. With less rain, the level of water table decreased.

B. Siltation: The hydraulic system of Angkor depended on gravity. In a flat country where rivers run without a strong current are themselves fed by slow and turbid streams, the waterways inevitably silted up. In the moats, the rate of siltation seems to have been 2-3 millimeters per year. The Wester Baray silted at a rate of .3 meters per century.

C. Siltation of the Lake: Ongoing natural sedimentation in the Lake necessarily, if insidiously, modified the mouths of the rivers. Today the Siem Reap River slows at least two meters lower than the intended entrances of all known Angkorian waterworks due to erosion. This indicates the degree to which siltation has changed the relation of the lake to the rivers flowing into it.

D. Decrease in the Water Table: Linked to the changes described above are modification in the ground water level which has dropped 0.7 meters. As long as irrigation was assured and the water level remained sufficiently  high and constant, mineral exchanges through the soil were minimal and clay remained below the surface. When the rivers was dry during the hot season, the ground water level decreased and evaporation brought particles of clay to the surface. Little by little, the arable layer of earth filled with iron and thus was rendered fallow and unusable.

E. Malaria: The stagnant waters of the large reservoirs general became excellent breeding grounds for mosquitos which then devastated local populations with malaria.


Lessons from the Past

Source: Molyvann, Vann. Modern Khmer Cities. Phnom Penh, Cambodia : Reyum ; [Chicago, IL?] : Sales and distribution, USA, Art Media Resources, c2003

West Baray

P 26 Lessons

“This book takes lessons learned from ancient city planning and management and applies them to contemporary urban planning in order to help to formulate a national strategy for urbanisation and management of territory in Cambodia today. The study of ancient Khmer cities proposes two lessons for us.

The first lesson is that the dominant method of land management used by Khmer civilization has been the hydraulic system. In the flood plains of the Mekong River Valley, natural as well as man-made dikes, canals (prek), and ponds (beng) have been used to manage water distribution. In areas above flood level, such as on the plans of Angkor, large reservoirs (baray) have been built for the storage of water and network of canals have been dug to allow for wide distribution of water thus stored.

The second lesson is that , in the valley of the Mekong River, flooding is the major constraint to the development of human settlements. THe highest flood levels have generally determined the position of all Khmer cities which are located at the upper limit of the flood waters. To move cities farther away from the flood zones requires very substantial infrastructure to provide them with adequate water sources and sufficient water distribution systems”

P 27 Applications

“My ongoing research has identified strategic measures for managing processes of urbanization in the future. In this book, I sketch three pilot actions of land management which I find both of the utmost priority and relatively feasible to realize in the medium term.

The first project aims to reconstruct and rehabilitate the hydraulic system of the Angkor/Siem Reap region. Such a reconstruction will restore vitality to a region which, during the Angkorian era, supported an estimated population of 600,000 people. Urban development of the area will be complimented by tourism development. It is hoped that this development, if properly managed, can provide sufficient resources to reinvigorate the economy of the whole country.

The second project concerns the capital of Phnom Penh. This project creates a Greater Phnom Penh consisting of the entire area of the “Four Faces”. Technqiques of irrigation using prek should be adapted at a large scale for the whole of Central Cambodia. The restructuring of Phnom Penh’s future growth is connected to the development of the Prk Thnot River for multiple purposes (irrigation, electricity production, and flood control).

The third project aims to reassert Cambodia’s opening to the sea. As we have seen, the early kingdom of Funan relied on the port of Oc-Eo to connect the Kingdom to international maritime routes. The port of Sihanoukville, created in the late 1950s and 1960s, must fulfill this essential function in order for Cambodia to once again be integrated into the world economy. Sihanoukville has the potential to becomes the center for the entire Cambodian coastal region, an area which has languised for more than twenty years with virtually no development.”

Thoughts on Development from Van Molyvann

Source: Molyvann, Vann. Modern Khmer Cities. Phnom Penh, Cambodia : Reyum ; [Chicago, IL?] : Sales and distribution, USA, Art Media Resources, c2003.

Phnom Penh

From Introduction:

“My research is based on the belief that the evolution of land management must be analysed through multiple intersecting themes which not only include physical, geographical, historical and archaeological elements, but also involve the socia-economic, cultural and religious context of the people.

Contemporary urban planning must concern itself not only with plans and buildings, but also the social-economic environments into which buildings, infrastructures and urban plans are inserted.

Such an approach must analyse existing contemporary environments, and historicize these settings to consider both the past and the present when planning for the future. The site must be understood for its past (that is, its geology, its archaeological remains, its history development) as well as for its present conditions and limitations (soil on which buildings are built, climate in which buildings are used, water availability etc). Similarly, the social milieu must be understood both on terms of past social and cultural uses of the site as well as in the present in order to develop in harmony with the habits of populations for which plans are intended.”

Page 19
City classifications:

_Principal City: Phnom Penh
Notes: The satellite city of Takhmau is growing in tandem it is probable that the two cities will eventually merge into one large urban conglomeration

_Important Provincial Cities: Pursat, Battambang, Kompong, Cham and Takmau
Notes: 80& of cultivation depends upon adequate rainfall. Average rice production is of the order of 1.3 tons per hectare an extremely low figure when compared to international figures for intensive rice production.

_Tourist Cities: Siem Reap
Notes: Sihanoukville in the long term offers complimentary tourist potential to the Angkor/Siem Reap region

_Port Cities: Sihanoukville + Koh Kong
Notes: Half-a-million tons of cargo passes through this port each year

_Border Cities: Poipet, Pailin, Sisophon, Svay Rieng
Notes: In the 1960s there was a proposed ECAFE (Economic Council for Asia and the Far East) highway which was to start in Turkey, and then pass through Pakistan, India, Burma and Thailand.

_Provincial Towns: Prey Veng, Kompong Thom, Kompong Chhnang, and Takeo.
Notes: Limited commercial and industrial activity.

_Towns in Remote Provinces: Kratie, Stung Treng, Tbeng Meanchey, Banlung, Sen Monorom
Notes: Limited modern infrastructure, far from existing commercial routes.


Source: Molyvann, Vann. Modern Khmer Cities. Phnom Penh, Cambodia : Reyum ; [Chicago, IL?] : Sales and distribution, USA, Art Media Resources, c2003.


“It is a system of Prek which manage the annual cycle of flooding in order to make the rise in water productive. The prek is a canal in which water runs into the fields during times of flooding and then out toward the river at the beginning of the dry season. Most prek are man-made, having been dug by local inhabitants in order to allow flood waters to fill low-lying fields located behind the natural embankments of the river banks. The bottom of the prek is at a height somewhat higher than the lowest water level of the river. The first flood wateres therefore do not enter the prek. It is only the later silt laden waters of the floods which are allowed to enter the prek, flooding the interior fields and depositing new silt each year on the low-lying fields behind the riverbank. The which receives these alluvial deposits is considered the most fertile of the country. After the flood waters recede, some of the water is stored in bengs, or ponds, found in the low-lying fields behind the riverbanks. As the dry season proceeds, these beng often dry up completely only to once again become large lakes as the annual rains and flood waters come. The work of the prek is necessarily undertaken collectively through collaborative labor organized by elders and notables of the villages who divide the fields according to the amount of labor each villager has contributed. This communal system of managing water resources has, over millenium, shaped the morphology of the banks of the Mekong River.”


Mekong Conflicts + Wars

A first attempt at mapping the conflicts along the Mekong during the last two centuries.


The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future

Osborne, Milton. The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000.

To follow up on: “Between 1969 and 1997 Cambodia’s total forest cover has been reduced by 30 percent. If the present rate of logging continues the country’s forest reserves will be exhausted by 2003” World Bank Report 1998

Length: 4 800 km
Drainage Basin: 795 000 sq km

Mekong – Alternate Names
Thailand: Mae Nam Khong ‘Mother of the Waters’
China: Dza Chu ‘River of Rocks’
China: Lacang Jiang ‘Turbulent River’
Cambodia: Tonle Thom ‘Great River’
Vietnam: Song Lon ‘Great River’
Vietnam: Song Cuu Long ‘Nine Dragons River’

From Publishers Weekly
“The Mekong River, which begins in windswept, upland Tibet and runs through China, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand, has a rich history, the subject of Osborne’s pathbreaking, ecologically informed chronicle. Beginning with the fifth-century Khmer empire and the magnificent Angkor temple complex, his brisk narrative moves on to a colorful account of 16th-century explorers, missionaries and merchants who vied for supremacy in the region. Osborne retraces the French Mekong Expedition of 1866-1868, which he calls a heroic, epic endeavor, but he also emphasizes the bloody repression and inequities fostered by French colonialism. From 1966 onward came multiple tragedies–years of relentless American bombing, the Khmer Rouge’s genocide, massacres of Vietnamese living in Cambodia, imposition of harsh communist regimes–and Osborne, a former Australian diplomat, U.N. advisor and author of seven books on Southeast Asia, graphically records the human costs to the Mekong region’s inhabitants. The Mekong Delta is Vietnam’s rice basket, thanks to centuries of canal building, and the fish in Cambodia’s Great Lake, linked to a Mekong tributary, provide 60% of Cambodia’s protein intake. Although China’s hydroelectric dam-building projects pose the threat of declining fish catches and disruption of subsistence agriculture, China has shown scant concern for the environmental consequences. Clear-felling of timber, disastrous floods, pollution and an AIDS epidemic also threaten the Mekong civilizations. Although Osborne’s amalgam of travel, reportage and history is not quite the full-bodied cultural saga the river deserves, his book is a pulsating journey through the heart of Southeast Asia.”

Phnom Penh: A Cultural Reader

Osborne, Milton. Phnom Penh: A Cultural History. Oxford University Press, 2008.

A description from somewhere:

“As a one-time resident of Phnom Penh and an authority on Southeast Asia, Milton Osborne provides a colorful account of the troubled history and appealing culture of Cambodia’s capital city. Osborne sheds light on Phnom Penh’s early history, when first Iberian missionaries and freebooters and then French colonists held Cambodia’s fate in their hands. The book examines one of the most intriguing rulers of the twentieth century, King Norodom Sihanouk, who ruled over a city of palaces, Buddhist temples, and transplanted French architecture, an exotic blend that remains to this day. Osborne also describes the terrible civil war, the Khmer Rouge’s capture of the city, the defeat of Pol Pot in 1979, and Phnom Penh’s slow reemergence as one of the most attractive cities in Southeast Asia.”

Milton Osborne’s other books include:

  • Singapore and Malaysia (1964)
  • Strategic Hamlets in South Viet-Nam: A Survey and a Comparison (1965)
  • The French Presence in Cochinchina and Cambodia: Rule and Response (1859-1905) (1969, reprinted 1997)
  • Region of Revolt: Focus on Southeast Asia (1970)
  • Politics and Power in Cambodia: The Sihanouk Years (Longman, 1973)
  • River Road to China: The Mekong River Expedition, 1866-1873 (London and New York, 1975)
  • Southeast Asia: An Introductory History (eight editions, 1979 to 2000)
  • Before Kampuchea: Preludes to Tragedy (1979)
  • Sihanouk: Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness (1994)
  • River Road to China: The Search for the Source of the Mekong, 1866-73 (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1999)
  • The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future, Allen & Unwin, Sydney (2000)

Selected references from the book:

Chandler, David. A History of Cambodia
Tully, John. France of the Mekong: A History of the Protectorate in Cambodia, 1863-1953.
Tully, John. A Short History of Cambodia: From Empire to Survival.
Lewis, Norman. A Dragon Apparent, Travels in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
Shawcross, William. Sideshow: Nixon, Kissinger and the Destruction of Cambodia.

Khmer Rouge Canals

Grand Delusion: Khmer Rough Irrigation Development in Cambodia, Jeffrey Himel
Source: Documentation Center of Cambodia, searching for the truth magazine

Map from the paper: Land Development of the Khmer Rouge as taken from satellite imagery (courtesy W.J. van Liere).

















Cambodia Revives Pol Pot’s Deadly Canals, New York Times

Thomas Fuller

The dry season has taken hold here, but water is everywhere. It pours out of sluice gates with the roar of an Alpine torrent. Playful children do back flips into the ubiquitous canals and then pull their friends in with them. Fishermen cast their nets for minnows, and villagers wash their Chinese-made motorcycles.

“It’s never dry here,” said Chan Mo, a 36-year-old rice farmer standing on top of an irrigation dike.

The Khmer Rouge canals have come back to life.

By the time the brutal government of Pol Pot was toppled three decades ago, 1.7 million Cambodians were dead from overwork, starvation and disease, and the country was a ruin. But the forced labor of millions of Cambodians left behind something useful – or that’s how the current government sees it.

The leaders of the Khmer Rouge were obsessed with canals, embankments and dams. They presided over hundreds of irrigation projects to revive Cambodia’s glorious but perhaps mythical past of an agrarian wonderland.

“There has never been a modern regime that placed more emphasis and resources towards developing irrigation,” wrote Jeffrey Himel, a water resource engineer, in a recent study of Cambodia’s irrigation system.

“The Khmer Rouge emptied all cities and towns, and put practically the entire population to work planting rice and digging irrigation dikes and canals.” Some of the canals were poorly designed – “hydraulic nonsense,” says Alain Goffeau, a French irrigation expert with the Asian Development Bank. But many were viable.

The Khmer Rouge built around three-quarters of Cambodia’s more than 1,000 canal networks, according to a survey commissioned by the United Nations in the 1990s.

Now, across this impoverished nation of 14 million people, the canals are being rebuilt by a government hoping to take advantage of the world’s increasing demand for rice.

The Asian Development Bank is helping finance the rehabilitation of a dozen canals, adding to projects financed by the Japanese and South Korean governments.

“There’s a lot of possibility,” Goffeau said.

For older Cambodians, the canals are a source of ambivalence. Men like Loh Thoeun, 61, now a rice farmer, think back to the baskets of dirt that he carried away, hour after hour.

He recalls the horrors of the Khmer Rouge – the laborers, hands tied behind their backs, who were “dragged away like cows” and never returned, the Muslim families who were thrown down a nearby well. The foremen of the irrigation project in Baray were killed after the canals and embankments were completed – without explanation. Loh says he once saw Pol Pot inspect the canals on what he described as a “speedboat.”

All of the work was done by hand here in Baray, a two-hour drive north of the capital, Phnom Penh. No talking was allowed among laborers. The Khmer Rouge played revolutionary songs and banged hubcaps to encourage the workers. Contemporary photos show huge crowds toiling in the dust.

“The earth here is very hard, and when we dug deeper we got to the hardest part – the most compact ground,” said Loh, sitting in a bamboo shelter beside his rice fields. “We had to hammer at it. It was like cutting down a tree.”

For so many Cambodians the Khmer Rouge years, from 1975 to 1979, were about digging. Villagers and residents of Phnom Penh, who were forced to move to the countryside, were organized in small work units.

“I was a slave,” said Ang Mongkol, now the deputy director general of the Ministry of Interior who was a law student when the Khmer Rouge came to power and was assigned to haul dirt.

Yet despite the sorrow of those years, there are only traces of remorse here about taking full advantage of the canals. Loh hopes the canals he built in slave-like conditions will help double or triple his rice output.

“I always recall the past to my children,” Loh said. “I say, “We have water from this canal that was built by the people. And many of them died.”

Ang is leading an experimental project that uses water from the canal to irrigate fields of hybrid rice varieties that promise to yield four times as much as the variety traditionally grown here. Because only about 20 percent of Cambodia’s fields are irrigated, its rice farmers harvest on average half as much as Vietnam’s and one third as much as China’s.

The irrigation system in Baray, which is fed from water diverted from the nearby Chinit River, functioned for several years after the Khmer Rouge left power. But in the mid-1980s it fell into disrepair. It was only in 2005 that the government began rebuilding it. Today, the local municipality hires a maintenance crew to keep the water flowing.

Among the workers is Sim Vy, 48. As a teenager she was enlisted by the Khmer Rouge to help build the canals. She was told she was working for national glory but received only a watery gruel as recompense. Now she is paid $55 a month. “I prefer working this way,” she said.

This song came back on Google as Struggling to Build Dam and Dig Canals (Khmer Rouge Song). I need to find someone who speaks Khmer to tell me whether this is in fact true but here it is nevertheless.

Additional Source: 

Title: Grand delusion – Khmer Rouge irrigation development in Cambodia

Description: Himel, J., 2002: Integration and management of irrigation, drainage and flood control Volume 1B 18th International Congress on Irrigation and Drainage, Montreal, Canada, 2002: 1-15