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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Land-grabbing, lack of freedoms, shock activists

Land-grabbing, lack of freedoms, shock activists

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More than 1,600 families were evicted from their homes in the Sambok Chab village by Tonle Bassac and resettled in this undeveloped paddy field 22km away on Phnom Penh's outskirts.

Regional human rights activists have told the Post they are stunned at the land grabbing

and lack of freedoms in Cambodia, and have drawn unflattering comparisons to Myanmar

and even the Khmer Rouge era.

A visiting delegation of 33 activists traveled to Phnom Penh to join more than 50

Cambodians for the first Southeast Asia Human Rights Defenders Forum, which began

on November 14.

A series of field trips on November 15 included a visit to the makeshift huts and

bleak conditions of Andoung village, the Dangkao relocation site for the evicted

families of Tonle Bassac's Sambok Chab community.

"I've not seen anything like this before," said Usha Baskaran, a delegate

from Education and Research Association for Consumers, Malaysia. "These people

are being treated worse than cattle."

"We should all work together to pressure on the Cambodian government,"

Baskaran said.

The activists walked around Andoung village, 22 km outside Phnom Penh. The undeveloped

former paddy field has become the ersatz home for more than 1,600 families after

a forced eviction by riot police in June.

"I used to live in the Thai border [refugee] camps and if we compare [Andoung]

with the camps, we had better conditions than them," said Htoo Chit, director

of the Grassroots Human Rights, Education and Development Committee, Burma [Myanmar].

During the visit, some relocated villagers drew parallels to the days of the Khmer

Rouge, saying that under Pol Pot the entire country was forced to survive on next

to nothing, but today there is a striking gap between the haves and have-nots.

"I'm afraid that people will start to hate democracy because they might compare

it with the Pol Pot regime and think that time was better," said Chit, wearing

a T-shirt bearing the visage of Myanmar Nobel Laureate and rights advocate Aung San

Suu Kyi. "My country is a military regime, but in Cambodia the government is

elected by the people."

The field trips were part of a five-day forum organized by Forum-Asia and hosted

by local rights group Licadho. Regional delegates came from Aceh, Myanmar, East Timor,

Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, as well as Nepal. Neighboring

countries, such as Laos and Vietnam, were not invited because Forum-Asia doesn't

have partner NGOs in those countries.

The event follows similar sub-regional forums covering South and Northeast Asia,

and aims to develop cooperation between human rights defenders in the leadup to a

regional forum in Bangkok later this month.

"It's exciting because it gives regional activists the chance to learn about

Cambodia, and the Cambodians are discovering that they face similar threats to other

defenders around the region", said Miwa Igawa, Cambodia country program coordinator

for Forum-Asia.

Local human rights defenders participating in the forum include NGO workers, union

leaders, students and community activists.

Keal Chan Sarn became a human rights defender after her experiences battling against

an attempted land grab of her Banteay Meanchey property in 2000. Like a growing network

of grassroots activists, Sarn received training in "active non-violence"

and now passes on those lessons to her community.

"Sure I'm worried about my security as a human rights defender, but I have a

choice - if they kill me with a bullet it's a quick death but if they kill by [taking

land and depriving us of] rice crop, everyone will die," Sarn said during a

break from presentations.

"I have pointed my finger in the face of the provincial governor and had soldiers

point their guns at me many times. But the problem is I'm illiterate, I only went

to primary school for two years," she said.

Sarn, who has seven children with her husband, a former government soldier who lost

a leg to a landmine in the 1980s, was surprised to learn that citizens of other Southeast

Asian countries face similar threats to their rights.

The forum will discuss ways regional activists can work together to lobby for change

and will produce a "Phnom Penh Declaration" to add to those formed in Nepal

and Mongolia. The event will end with a Solidarity March from the forum venue at

the new Ministry of Women's Affairs to Wat Phnom - a parting test of freedom of expression

in Cambodia.

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