Photocopies of petitions calling for the government to act against land-grabbing are strung up on the bank of the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh on June 6, the day after the originals were handed to United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights.
Desperate over the loss of their farms, hundreds of villagers from distant districts in the countryside have converged on Phnom Penh, some of them walking hundreds of kilometers to protest what rights groups warn is an increasingly dangerous land-grabbing crisis.
Some have come to beg for Prime Minister Hun Sen and other senior government officials to intervene, while others are seeking help from non-governmental organizations and rights groups.
“People are still coming to Phnom Penh from all over the country, desperate for government officials to listen to their land problems and resolve them,” said Kek Galabru, president of the rights group Licadho.
At least six separate groups representing hundreds of families have sought help from authorities in Phnom Penh this month over land seizures.
“This shows that land grabbing is rampant and that villagers are unable to get their grievance heard anywhere else,” Galabru said in a statement from Licadho.
Illegal land seizures have emerged as one of the most serious threats to stability in Cambodia, where the combination of corruption and a land registry system ruined by decades of civil strife have made property ownership tenuous at best for most.
The issue has been made worse by rapidly rising land prices, which have resulted in mass evictions across the country, with some rights groups estimating that hundreds of thousands of mostly poor Cambodians have either lost their property or face forced eviction.
“Licadho once more urges the government to declare a moratorium on evictions and to take firm action to discipline and prosecute state officials and other powerful individuals involved in land grabbing,” the organization said in a statement.
The issue continues to garner international attention, with the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission saying on June 12 it had launched a petition demanding that Prime Minister Hun Sen halt land grabs for development projects.
In forced evictions
thus far, public forces
have demolished their
homes or set them on
fire and destroyed
“In forced evictions thus far, public forces have demolished their homes or set them on fire and destroyed their belongings including crops and plantations,” the group said in a statement.
“Some evictees have been beaten or even arrested on fabricated charges to subdue resistance and force evictees to accept unjust compensation. It is very likely that such brutality will continue in future evictions,” it added.
A petition signed by 42,000 victims of land grabs was handed over earlier this month to the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights in Phnom Penh.
The 4,500-page petition calls on authorities to heed a much-publicized demand by Hun Sen for officials to stop land grabs and illegal logging throughout Cambodia, and return illegally seized land to its rightful owners.
“We chose to present our petition to the UN rather than government authorities for two reasons: to protect the petition from those who want to destroy it and because we want the UN to tell the rest of the world what is happening here,” said Om Meng, a community activist from Kampong Thom province and a member of the Cambodian Peace Network.
Hundreds of petition pages were confiscated by provincial police and other officials while signatures were being collected in what organizers say was an attempt to scare them into stopping their petition drive.
Licadho’s Galabru said the petition – the first of its kind – marks the beginning of organized grassroots opposition to illegal land seizures.
“This is the first time such a large group has united to fight against illegal land grabbing,” she said following a three-hour meeting with the UN rights agency’s country representative, Christophe Peschoux on June 5 during which villagers presented their petition.
“And they did it on their own. They used their own networks, their own ideas, organized their own meetings – we have simply been there to offer advice and support,” Galabru said.
She said the number of petitioners and the fact that they came from throughout the country highlighted the scale of illegal land seizures.
“And this is not all [of the victims]; there are more out there,” Galabru said, adding that she believed that the number of signatories would continue to rise as momentum built towards a resolution.
“With perseverance, the government will have to listen,” she said.
Neither Peschoux nor the government’s National Land Dispute Authority could be reached for comment.
(Additional reporting by Seth Meixner)