Mason Student Studies Emerging Protest Culture Over Land Rights Conflicts in Cambodia
September 16, 2015
By Buzz McClain
When Sarah Rose-Jensen looks out the window of the bus during one of her six-hour rides from bustling Phnom Penh to the rural river valley village of Areng, she sometimes sees echoes of her hometown of Willis Wharf, Va.
Rice paddies can look like the marshes of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. The long stretches of water-bound landscape, minus the palm trees, she said, at times feel familiar.
But beyond the appearance, there is another similarity, the one that drives the PhD candidate at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution: the people, their homes and their livelihoods are challenged by the forces of political change, often against their will.
“In Cambodia, there is a massive increase in people in communities being told they don’t have the rights to the land they’re living on,” she said. “They’re being moved off that land, sometimes forcibly and often with inadequate compensation.”
The Eastern Shore of Virginia, the rural area where Rose-Jensen grew up, has faced similar change as industrial agriculture displaced the small farms there during the past 30 years.
Rose-Jensen, armed with a Fulbright Scholarship and skills acquired at Mason, is studying how citizens respond to government oversight, and she hopes her dissertation will provide valuable recommendations for local non-government organizations in Cambodia to alleviate tensions before protests lead to violent confrontations.
“I came to S-CAR as an activist who was burned out on activism,” she said. “So a lot of my research has been in social mobilization, protests, community organizing—sort of studying the stuff I used to do.”
Rose-Jensen found an emotional connection with Cambodia during an earlier visit and returned because the country was ideal for her field of study.
“Cambodia’s a great example of a lot of the issues we study—recently post-conflict and rapidly developing,” she said. “It’s a region that is attempting to unify and moving toward democracy and open society, but is consistently ranked poorly on measures of freedom, corruption and trafficking.”
Rose-Jensen spends her days attending community meetings, talking with representatives of NGOs and interviewing those involved in local issues in two towns, Boeung Kak Lake and Areng, researching social mobilization as it relates to land rights. Areng, home to primarily indigenous minorities, is particularly endangered as the Cambodian government has plans to build a hydroelectric dam that will flood some nine villages in the valley.
The results of Rose-Jensen’s studies will be applicable elsewhere around the world, her primary advisor said.
“In much of the developing world we see similar problems as those in Cambodia—large foreign investors coming in and taking over land, whether to establish agricultural enterprises, mining operations or other economic ventures,” said Mason professor Agnieszka Paczynska. “These processes have led to conflicts in a variety of countries as communities resist the companies—and often their governments who invite the investors.”