Politics and International Relations
In Cambodia, ‘land grabs’ or protracted disputes between smallholder farmers and the state over agricultural land and natural resources have burgeoned over the last two decades. Cambodian women have emerged as prominent leaders in rural resistance against land grabbing, thus challenging the patrimonial politics that secures the ruling authoritarian regime’s claims and control over landed resources. This paper seeks to understand how gendered positionalities of rural Cambodian women influence their leadership and participation in social movements against land grabs. Drawing largely on interviews conducted with women leading two grassroots’ movements in rural Cambodia, this paper argues that examining women-led resistance over land offers a unique framework through which the connections between gender, patronage and consolidation of authoritarian rule can be read. Through detailed process-tracing and discourse analysis, this paper finds that the rural woman land activist is empowered in her resistance by her position as the gendered ‘political outsider’, unincorporated in local patronage relations that quell contestation against the regime. Her claims, embedded in gendered peasant subjectivities, are articulated with reference to localized moral economies that counter the coercive, legitimizing force of patron-client relations binding political and institutional exercises of power in the country. By turning our vantage point to see what land disputes and experiences of women’s resistance can tell us about the architecture of patrimonialism that underwrites the Cambodian state’s institutionalised authority, this paper adds a novel perspective to the literature on authoritarianism, social movements and democratic transition in South-East Asia.