On Land Grabbing and Cross-border Investment: Case of Cambodian Migrant Workers in Thailand from a Gender-lens


Land grabbing in Southeast Asia continues to be an issue of concern, particularly from a livelihood and an environmental perspective. The population in the region largely live in rural areas, the majority of whom make their living by depending on the natural resources that surround them, such as land and water. This article is based on a research conducted in a local community in Cambodia and discusses key findings by using a gender lens to highlight changes which have occurred on various levels in the community.

Land grabbing in Southeast Asia continues to be an issue of concern, particularly, from a livelihood and an environmental perspective. The population in the region largely live in rural areas, the majority of whom make their living by depending on the natural resources that surround them, such as land and water. Land grabbing has, thus, significant economic, environmental, and social impacts because of this dependence.

The intersecting problem of cross-border land grabbing and migrant workers have not been sufficiently analysed or debated within the current discourse of land grabbing. Land grabbing also affects different genders in different ways. This article is based on research conducted in a local community in Cambodia and discusses key findings by using a gender lens to highlight changes which have occurred on various levels in the community.

The flows of paradox in Southeast Asia

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) comprising of ten nation states pledged to rapidly escalate “economic integration” among member countries. One of the organisation’s key strategies has been to encourage Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), including Intra-ASEAN investment. While ASEAN’s nation states are working hard to pursue the best way to attract investors, data show that there was an unequal spread of resources across member states. According to the 2015-2016 data[i], some countries have received more attention than others with intra-ASEAN investment becoming the largest source of FDI flow streaming into Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, and Vietnam (CLMV), countries that are still rich in natural resources and human resources. At the same time that there was a flood of investors from capital-rich countries, it appeared to be a flow of migrant workers exiting the targeted countries. This paradoxical situation show the contrast between the keen, fully confident investors and unprepared, uncooperative migrant workers. As demonstrated in many large-scale cross-border projects, including agribusiness, hydropower dams, and extractive industries, a few companies which often to be the same companies, benefited from the displacement of many local communities. This phenomenon has profound consequences such as the loss of land, forests and rivers as well as the flow of capital and labour within the ASEAN countries. FDI has involved not only foreign investors, nation states and local communities in the region, but also the old and new representatives of the market liberalization ideology such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB) and China as the highly influential neighbour.

The Thai sugar industry in Cambodia: a major cross-border land grabbing

According to the Cambodian government, as one of the Least Developed Countries (LDC), FDI is an important source of economic development and growth. With FDI costs of 1.7 Billion USD in 2015, Cambodia has ranked as the second highest FDI country among the CLMV group, just after Vietnam[ii]. While trying to pursue domestic policies that would attract investors, the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was in power since the end of the 1990s, had created or re-created different policy schemes such as the Economic Land Concession (ELC) and the allocation of Special Economic Zones (SEZs). Both of these policy schemes which started in 1996, have granted foreign investors access to the country's land and other resources but were, subsequently paused through a moratorium in 2012. By that time, the government had managed to grant some 2.6 million hectares of land to private companies under the ELC scheme, now enjoying the reputation as Cambodia’s biggest land-grabbing scheme. As the European Parliament figures show in 2012, at least 400,000 Cambodians have been displaced by companies, and some of them are never heard of by the local communities. The sugar industry had benefited from large-scale investment and had grown into a multi-million business in the past decade. This boom was largely due to the European Union policy, ‘Everything but Arms’ (EBA) initiative, which granted tariff-free access to products to the world’s least-developed nations, including Cambodia. Before the Chinese companies arrived in 2016, the Thai sugar companies, Khon Kaen Sugar Ltd., (KSL) and Mitr Phol Company were the biggest amongst its kind. Arriving in 2006 and 2007 respectively, the two sugar companies created subsidiary companies and were each granted land concessions for nearly 20,000 hectares of land. These concessions allowed the companies to avoid restrictions under the 2001 Land Law of Cambodia which limited the maximum land concession to a request of no more than 10,000 hectares which, consequently, triggered much distrust amongst the affected people from Koh Kong Province in South-western Cambodia and Oddar Meanchey in the remote Northwest.

Thailand, currently the world’s fourth-largest sugar producer after Brazil, India, and China, have influential sugar tycoons who are treated as the country's elites. In contrast, however, the local Thai sugarcane growers who work under the contract farming system did not enjoy the same status. After many decades, despite the fact that some farmers have successfully been lifted from the vicious cycle of debt and sometimes the loss of land, the fight against the new sugar factories in Thailand still continues. Due to the activities of these companies which incidentally operate in both Laos and Cambodia, some ten thousand hectares of rice fields and dipterocarp forest land in Thailand have been targeted to be replaced by highly chemical sugar plantations and factories with the estimated several thousand trucks running daily through the villages.

The expansion of the Thai sugar industry to the border provinces of its neighbouring CLMV countries was not only for the eliminating of their investment in the region, but also for the Thai companies to seek for alternative locations apart from the areas in Thailand where the local Thai communities are still campaigning against them. In Cambodia, while Koh Kong was a well-known old, trading border province, Oddar Meanchey Province in contrast, is a rich forest and a mountainous remote province. The province was the former base of Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian Civil War from 1989 to 1997 and remains to be one of Cambodia’s most landmine-ridden areas, making it one of the reasons why the province was placed on the list of ELC targeted areas.

The demolition of O’Bat Moan and its boundless impacts

In 2009, one of the most notorious and violent cases under the ELC scheme was the burning and forced evictions that had occurred in O’Bat Moan, a village in Oddar Meanchey Province. The merciless operation perpetrated by a joint operation of over a hundred police, military, and forestry officials had caused a complete devastation and displaced more than 200 families who had lived there. Until 2013, the complaints against Mitr Phol Sugar Company were investigated by the Thai Human Rights Commission (THRC)[iii]. Interestingly, just before the THRC released its report at the end of 2015, the Mitr Phol Company pulled out from the area and returned the land and forest that had been cleared back to the Cambodia government. After a decade of struggling and intervention by different concerned groups internationally, including the European Union, the O’Bat Moan people are, at the time of this article writing, entering the process of the land distribution by the government for the first time. As being reported, in August 2018, 123 former villagers of O’Bat Moan and 214 families were each given 2 hectares of land.  The land distribution process was also occurred in Koh Kong Province in the sugar industry dispute area.

The village of O’Bat Moan makes an important case study as it is a demonstration of some of the negative impacts of the Intra-ASEAN cross-border investment. Firstly, the blatant violence by the state, supported by the police and military against its people, was showcased. This behaviour, in the name of regional 'economic integration' ideology, became a trade-off for the well-being of Cambodian citizens and foreign investment. Such attitude and action as predicted, went far beyond the imagination and coping capacity of the village people. The O'Bat Moan villagers had been through civil war during the Khmer Rouge era and were further traumatized by witnessing the burning and bulldozing of their homes while all they could do was to flee or surrender. The men in the village became the primary targets of violence and were forced to flee, taring families apart and leaving behind women, children, and old people who eventually were expelled from their houses. In their sustained struggle to get back their land, the people who to continued live around the O’Bat Moan area encountered other forms of hardship and injustice. Some of the affected people walked to Phnom Penh to submit their grievances to the Prime Minister and were later arrested and jailed. Included amongst the arrested was a five-month pregnant woman, Hoy Mai, who, in her eight months of imprisonment, gave birth to her son and raise him under the most horrendous conditions.

Secondly, land grabbing is a complex phenomenon and often takes place far from the public eye with serious and sometimes, unpredictable consequences for the communities affected. Increasingly, land grabbing has had dire consequences for the environment, the natural resources and the livelihoods of people and often a lack of effective remedies or recourses for affected communities. In the village of O’Bat Moan, as evidenced, as a result of land grabbing, people’s lives have been transformed affecting women and men in different ways.

The operations of the Thai company had transformed O'Bat Moan's households and labour forces from people who serve their family in the rice fields and who used the vast area of the surrounding forests as a source of livelihoods, to be unskilled and vulnerable illegal migrant workers in Thailand. The claim that foreign investment was the champion of the nation had started to back-fire. Many people were forced into migrant labour and smuggled into Thailand by lying down on a bottom of a small truck and covered by a thick plastic sheet.  They are usually paid around 80-100 USD per head to the ‘middleman’, the money, no doubt, shared by the Thai and Cambodia authorities. These migrant workers were not only paid in cash, but were also paying by risking their lives during this transition.

After being well compensated, the middleman would deliver the migrants to the hand of the employers and most of them would be kept behind fences to work. According to interviews with migrant workers from O’Bat Moan[iv], for those who lived and worked in the nine provinces in Thailand, their new life only benefited their employers in Thailand and the price that the workers paid was steep. As part of some 550,000 Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand, some O’Bat Moan people found themselves cheated, incarcerated and were accused of working in the sector that are not allowed by the work permit regulation. In some cases, they got stuck in Thailand penniless with their families. The interviews revealed that some workers were unaware of their location as they spent their entire working life on a pig farm. Moreover, according to a suffering mother back in the village, ‘’Just in the first year after he left to work, he called and told me that he was cheated by his boss. That was the last time I heard from him".  Without the land given back to them, most of the O'Bat Moan workers had to accept the fact that they could never return home. 

The Women of O'Bat Moan

The research in 2016 found that, over a period of five years, a group of ten O’Bat Moan migrant workers, mostly men, moved around between different construction sites. While feeling thankful to Thailand, most of the group member continued to commit to their ideal plan of returning to agricultural works as soon as they could get back their land. “Cambodia has nothing more meaningful for us than the land that we can own and work on by ourselves”, says Yoy Tai Am, the group leader. 

Working and living in Thailand, the O’Bat Moan workers have not only been sustaining their new livelihood by taking the risk and struggling without any links to others. Instead, they have became part of the Thai society. Therefore, it is a fact that eventhough it is often  forgotten, that anything occurs to these Cambodian farmers who are now migrant workers, is the burden and responsibility being shared with the Thai society in general.   

Moreover, the case of O’Bat Moan village has highlighted a significant fact about the changed roles of women on different levels such as the family, the community, and economic activities. Without adequate land and forests as a source of livelihood, without the help of the male members of the family, many women of O’Bat Moan become responsible for the survival of the remaining family members. At the same time, they were the care-takers of the depressed migrant workers who live far away in Thailand. Most of the O’Bat Moan families have decided to settle near to the demolished village area just to wait for the land to be returned, however, this means that these women have a longer stretch to reach the forest area for food and forest products, which had become rare after the company's encroachment. On the occasion that the men could not send money to their families, many women were forced into cheap labour on cassava or cashew nut orchards around their living area. 

Dedicated to their families, the women played a significant role in their involvement in the land campaign. The women responded by taking leadership and fighting for their rights and for justice so that their land could be returned. The villager and land campaigner, Hoy Mai, represented the calibre of people O'Bat Moan needed in their struggle “We need our family back. I need my son in Thailand to return home and work in our land” she insisted. 

Maintaining both their practical and symbolically roles in the midst of a harsh situation and dim hope, the research in 2016-2017 found that there was a strong reliance of the O’Bat Moan migrant workers in Thailand on their mothers or wives. Given their new situation as migrants living in a far-away country, the men depended on the women back home who had to be consulted. As in most countries in Southeast Asia, women were the spirit and true strength of the family unit, and for this reason, women deserved more roles in decision-making.

An End Note

Known as one of the "blood sugar" cases, the situation in O’Bat Moan village has highlighted the major impact that intra-ASEAN investments has had on people and the need to understand in more depth, the social, environmental and economic consequences that go beyond the myth of economic development. After a decade of working as migrant workers in Thailand, the men from O’Bat Moan do not have a choice to return to their land. This sentiment has being echoed by the women who live back in Cambodia. The O’Bat Moan case study has also hinted that the solution to the unfortunate problems caused by land grabbing could only be solved by looking through the lens of the local communities, including the women. The rebuilding of O’Bat Moan, if it will ever happen, requires both the strong force and symbolic role of women as well as the strength of their male counterparts. Public consideration needs to take into account the issues of human rights violations and the rights of migrant workers as it pertains to foreign investment and economic integration and both the governments and private companies in Southeast Asia should be cognisant to that fact.


[i] ASEAN Secretariat, ASEAN Investment Report 2015 : Infrastructure Investment and Connectivity http://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/unctad_asean_air2015d1.pdf

**The ASEAN Investment Report is an annual report on investment and other related issues in the region. This year’s Report features the linkages between ASEAN Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) and multinational enterprises (MNEs). 

[ii] ASEAN Secretariat, ASEAN Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) Database, http://www.cambodiainvestment.gov.kh/about-us/who-we-are.html  

[iii] Community Rights: Mitr Phol Sugar Company Limited negative impacts on people living in Samrong District and Chongkal District, Oddar Meanchey Province,  Northeastern Cambodia, NHRC.7, National Human Rights Commission Date: 12 October 2015, (Unofficial Translated By Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance [TERRA]).  http://www.sevanasea.org/reports.html