Beginning a Sketch of Accumulation by Dispossession in Contemporary Cambodia

Photo by John Vink.

Accumulation by dispossession is on a freight train in Cambodia. Protected from capitalist economic development under the tutelage of Vietnam from 1979 to 1989, Cambodia has developed rapidly and dramatically since the mid-1990s. This development sped up the wholesale processes of illegal natural resource extraction (logging, mining), the production of large land concessions to private firms for plantations, and the production of one of the first generations of waged labor in Cambodian history.

There are a few images I associate with this story; these swarm up behind my eyes, establishing their space and finding their proper relationships to each other. Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose canny politics have ensured his control over the Cambodian state and the enrichment of a new oligarchy. In this image, he is speaking against the land crisis and announcing the formation of a youth volunteer corps to solve the country’s land titling problem. Faces of families from Boeung Kak appear across the field from the prime minister, holding his photo along with a photo of his wife Bun Rany, pleading for their assistance and intervention. Their struggle against the theft of their homes appears defeated. Several of them were imprisoned. One, Yorm Bopha, just had her appeal denied.

Another image. In 2005, I watched what I thought was the final act of the eviction of Koh Pich, a name that means “Diamond Island,” in Phnom Penh. Koh Pich was inhabited, like most of Phnom Penh at one point or another, by people who were seeking refuge from the Khmer Rouge as it toppled. At some point, someone sold the land to a developer, who then had to contend with the people living there, many of whom had been assured by previous regimes that they were the land’s legal residents. Koh Pich was a tight-knit community that grew vegetables for sale in the city. Repeatedly called a slum by land speculators and their allies in government, its residents were unable to successfully resist eviction. The eviction itself was a horrible sight, and the images of homeless men employed by the company to demolish other poor people’s homes sticks with me, as does the image of a woman with two small children, quietly and determinedly disassembling as many things of value as she could from her small dwelling to bring with her as they were taken out of the city. The evicted were forcibly resettled in a rural camp, far from anything that could be considered an amenity, including sanitation. In other locations, villagers reported fireballs fired into the community from boats passing late in the night.

There’s now a new image to join these.

In January 2013, just after what was described as President Obama’s “tense visit” to Cambodia, I watched as the new volunteer land titling group was treated to a lavish dinner Koh Pich. Pictures of the smiling young people in their pseudo-military outfits, feasting on a site notoriously stolen through the process they were organized to oppose, were published in the newspapers. I felt like I was reading from the first page of Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, about tragedy and farce. I submit tragic farce and farcical tragedy to the range of possibilities.

The major news stories in Cambodia today are about land, labor, corruption, and crime; these are linked and the relationships among them are usually quite clearly understood. Land evictions and protests are constant, and contests over land title have put people’s backs against the wall. Cambodia traditionally did not have a problem with landlessness; there was almost always enough territory for peasants to clear new tracts of land to farm. It was a difficult life, to be sure, but not a life of landlessness. Historians stress that the challenge facing traditional Cambodian rulers was not control of land, but control of the labor to work it. Not coincidentally, then, the other recurring stories today are of labor struggles, labor migration, and slavery. The process that is transforming Cambodia’s rulers’ relationship to both land and labor is a process Marx called “primitive accumulation," but which we can call accumulation by dispossession, a more congenial and updated formulation by David Harvey. We might also just call it theft.

When one reads in the international media of the land disputes and major concessions given to private companies for lands on which people are living and working, the problem is always referred back to the Khmer Rouge, often with a comment that the communists burned all the land titles. But there have been multiple land regimes since the Khmer Rouge were toppled in 1979, and I have yet to encounter evidence of an efficient, countrywide titling process in place before 1975. When I read stories like these, it is as if I’m reading a newspaper from three decades ago; no time seems to have passed that needs to be explained. The reference is still, as it so often is, the Cold War, and Cambodia’s rhetorical place in that conflict.

Unlike the traditional Khmer elite focus on control of labor, the modern state demands that the territory over which it rules be clearly defined. While the land grabs proceed and the state closes the Cambodian map, the ability of Cambodians to sustain themselves in traditional ways is disappearing. In a process seen in many other places, indigenous people feel the effects most dramatically and earliest. In northeastern Cambodia, highlander ethnic minority groups have been protesting land grabs for decades. As their land base disappears, more of them become waged laborers on the plantations that have eaten away at their former lands. The geographer Ian Baird has discussed accumulation by dispossession with respect to ethnic minorities in Cambodia, including the recent definition of indigenous in Cambodia. While the assertion of community-based land rights is a laudable step, the state is already ignoring it.

Similar processes are affecting Khmer peasants, who are contributing their daughters, primarily, to work in the new waged sector of the garment industry. Throughout the country, young women from the countryside migrate to the cities and seek employment in the factories. Estimates of the percentage of workers who are female in the industry range between 80 and 90 percent. Other women may seek work as maids in other Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia. Rural men are more likely than women to seek employment out of country, and often wind up enslaved, for instance on a fishing boat off the coast of Thailand or even Africa. The International Organization for Migration reports that Cambodia is the sixth most significant point of origin for trafficked people worldwide.

The existence of a significant sector of the population employed year-round in waged labor is relatively new. A small labor force existed during the independence period, and seasonal labor, including labor for hire as well as corvée, has always existed. But understanding the effect of this sudden appearance of waged labor is not straightforward. On the one hand, the existence of young women as a class of significant wage earners is exciting. On the other hand, it is clear that most of these women remit at least half their wages to their families at home, many of whom use that money to extend the schooling of their male children fueling rising rural inequality. Perhaps most tragically, while rural families often depend on these wage-earning women, there is little evidence that their contributions are widely respected. I have written elsewhere on the characterization of these women as “hungry ghosts” who come home expecting gifts. This, in spite of the constant stream of wages sent home via remittances. Since these women consume so few of their own wages, they do not represent a stage in development so much as a step. Having used them to ascend, the rest of the country might be able and willing to merely leave them behind, as a disposable generation of women.

In Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici detailed the ways in which primitive accumulation not only helped create a male working class in Europe but also required the transformation of gendered relations, forcing women into the role of privately reproducing the male working class, without wages. In Cambodia at the moment, women dominate the waged working class, especially in the garment industry, the largest export sector in the country. But we do not see men privately reproducing the female working class. Instead, these women are largely on their own, both producing wages and still attempting to reproduce the family. Many of the gendered phenomena Federici associates with European primitive accumulation, such as rises in witchcraft accusations and murders, gang rape, and prostitution, are all on display in Cambodia as these economic transformations take place. Where that configuration will take us is anyone’s guess.

Meanwhile, back on Diamond Island, the prime minister was honoring his untrained youth land-titling volunteer corps with a feast. Yorm Bopha of Boeung Kak is still in prison, and those evicted from Koh Pich are still surviving on the edges, for eight years and counting.