Asian Journal of Law and Society

Comparative and Empirical Approaches of Socio–Legal Research on Asia

Creating Law from the Ground Up: Land Law in Post-Conflict Cambodia

Leah M. Trzcinskia1 and Frank K. Uphama21

a1 J.D., New York University School of Law

a2 Wilf Family Professor of Property Law, New York University School of Law


Since 1990, successive waves of foreign experts have introduced legal transplants into Cambodia dealing with the possession, use, and ownership of land. The Land Law of 2001, sponsored by the World Bank, first created a registration system that made land ownership dependent exclusively on a central cadastral registry. The 2007 Civil Code, sponsored by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, subsequently cast doubt on the exclusivity of the registry by declaring it only presumptive evidence of ownership. Both laws are based on foreign models that presume economic, technical, and professional resources that Cambodia, as a very poor, post-conflict country, lacks. Despite recent efforts to reconcile the laws, implementation remains uneven and legal ambiguity persists. While it is too early to make conclusive judgments, the Cambodian experience brings into question not only the wisdom of top-down foreign intervention but also the desirability of any form of centralized formal legal construction in a society without the necessary social, political, and institutional prerequisites.

(Online publication February 24 2014)


  • Cambodia;
  • land reform;
  • economic development;
  • legal institutions;
  • property rights


1  Leah Trzcinski, J.D., 2013, New York University School of Law, M.I.A., 2010, Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, B.B.A., 2004, University of Michigan Stephen M. Ross School of Business; Frank Upham, Wilf Family Professor of Property Law, New York University School of Law. The authors thank the participants in the Workshop on Legal Order, the State, and Economic Development held in Florence, Italy, 30 September to 1 October 2011, and the many individuals in Cambodia and Japan who assisted in the preparation of this paper. We extend special thanks to Virginie Diaz of the Agence Française de Développement, Issei Sakano of the Graduate School of International Cooperation Studies, Kobe University, Japan, and Mae Trang Nguyen, J.D., 2013, New York University School of Law. The authors gratefully acknowledge support from the Filomen D’Agostino and Max E. Greenberg Research Fund at New York University School of Law.