The peasants in turmoil: Khmer Rouge, state formation and the control of land in northwest Cambodia

TitleThe peasants in turmoil: Khmer Rouge, state formation and the control of land in northwest Cambodia
Annotated RecordAnnotated
Year of Publication2014
AuthorsDiepart J-C, Dupuis D
Secondary TitleThe Journal of Peasant Studies
Key themesAgriculturalModernization, MarginalisedPeople, MigrationLabour

Over the past 15 years, northwest Cambodia has seen dramatic agrarian expansion away from the central rice plain into the peripheral uplands fuelled by peasant in-migration. Against this background, we examine the nature of relations between the peasantry and the state. We first show the historical continuities of land control processes and how the use of violence in a post-conflict neoliberal context has legitimised ex-Khmer Rouge in controlling land distribution. Three case studies show the heterogeneity of local level sovereignties, which engage the peasants in different relations with authority. We examine how these processes result in the construction of different rural territories along the agricultural frontier and argue that, in this region of Cambodia, the struggles between Khmer Rouge and neoliberal modes of land control are central to state formation processes.


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Document Type

Journal Article


Overall relevance: 

This article provides a rich historical account of the evolving political economy of land relations in northwest Cambodia. The authors demonstrate how historical processes and events specific to northwest Cambodia have shaped contemporary patterns of land control and given rise to an extractive agrarian political economy based on networks developed by Khmer Rouge (KR) and Thai actors across the border. These historical processes include: the emergence of the northwest as the cradle of KR uprising

Key Themes: 
  • Agricultural modernisation: key ideas and debates relevant to land tenure security - Land and capital concentration in northwest Cambodia have resulted from land distribution processes controlled by KR elites and, later, market-driven land acquisitions that led to peasant indebtedness and land sales. The resulting increase in agricultural wage labour is a key defining feature of agrarian transformation in northwest Cambodia.
  • Marginalized people's land rights and access: ethnic minorities, poor and women - The article complicates the notion of marginalisation by shining the spotlight on actors and processes we don’t usually think of as main culprits or drivers of dispossession. In this case, processes of exclusion have been driven by former Khmer Rouge leaders, thanks to the policy of reintegration introduced by the government after the 1997 elections, which that gave Khmer Rouge warlords and soldiers the authority to distribute and manage land in northwest Cambodia. The land distribution process strongly favoured high-ranking Khmer Rouge officers and those with closest connections to them. This legacy has resulted in highly unequal patterns of land distribution and authority, with selected families becoming powerful interlocutors of transnational agri-businesses networks. These land enclosures imposed by KR elite have not gone uncontested, as shown in an example where peasants mobilised against KR legacy over a piece of land on a warlord landholding. Nevertheless, peasant mobilisations are shown by the authors to follow opportunistic behaviour that follow rules set by authorities that serve the interests of elites and markets.
  • Agrarian change and land: Migration and labour - The agrarian expansion away from the central rice plain into the peripheral uplands fuelled by peasant in-migration features in most ethnographies of land acquisition in Cambodia. In the case of northwest Cambodia, the policy of reintegration and land distribution to demobilised soldiers and migrant peasants opened considerable tracts of land suitable for cultivation and created incentives for migration. Through extended family networks linked to demobilised soldiers, peasants in need of land arrived from all parts of the country, particularly from neighbouring districts and the southwest. Successive waves of migrant farmers have colonised land increasingly located at the peripheries and brought with them an important labour force.
Research basis: 

The article draws on a rich literature review on Cambodian history, including primary documents from archives dating back to the colonial period and doctoral dissertations from Khmer Rouge leaders. The analysis of local land control is based on fieldwork carried out by the authors in the Bavel District, Battambang province, northwest Cambodia. This includes field observations and discussions with local authorities through the authors’ participation in a series of spatial planning workshops, as well as detailed ethnographic research conducted in three villages which make up the case studies in the article.