PHNOM PENH: Cambodia's parliament passed a controversial law on Dec 29 allowing the government to expropriate land for development, raising concerns about a surge in forced evictions in the Southeast Asian country.

The National Assembly, which is dominated by the ruling Cambodian People's Party, voted to allow the authorities to seize land to develop infrastructure and pursue other projects deemed to be in the public interest.

Critics and opposition lawmakers said the legislation was vaguely worded and were concerned it would be abused to evict people from prime real estate.

"It will leave even more room and a legal framework to take away land," said opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua.

Land ownership is a controversial issue in Cambodia, where legal documents were destroyed and state institutions collapsed under the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s and the civil war that followed.

A period of unprecedented growth since 2004 has boosted land prices, particularly in the capital, Phnom Penh, leading to a jump in the number of evictions and triggering fierce criticism of the government from aid donors.

In September, Cambodia said it was pulling out of a project sponsored by the World Bank aimed at settling land disputes, adding to international concern about the livelihoods of tens of thousands of impoverished city dwellers.

Eang Vuthi of land rights group Bridges Across Borders said civil society organisations had been hoping for a law that would help to prevent forced evictions by clearly stating when land expropriation was justified, but they failed to get changes made to the draft legislation.

"We wanted them to clarify the language," he said. "This law won't benefit the people. It will benefit only powerful people."

Government spokesman Phay Siphan described the law as a major step in the country's development.

"Nothing is perfect in this world," he said. "The law is a milestone for the country, a turning point. We have never had such a law before." -- Reuters