On the steps of Sambok Khmum Radio station on July 12 about 20 rural villagers
had gathered. They had traveled from their province to seek the help of radio president
and journalist Mam Sonando. The 64-year-old Sonando says many impoverished, displaced
and distraught Cambodians come to his station every day to plead for food, medical
care and advice. Most importantly, he says they come for a rare place to air grievances
about a government that frowns upon dissent. Claiming to be the "Voice of the
People," Sonando has gained a loyal following, as well as the anger of the ruling
government, for his popular radio programs. Jailed in 2005 after being found guilty
of defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen, Sonando, who worked in a factory while studying
photography in Paris, has come out strongly against the rash of recent land evictions
in Phnom Penh and elsewhere in the country. He estimates that more than 200,000 Cambodian
families are being affected by land disputes. He spoke to the Post about freedom
of speech and the government's responsibility regarding relocation.
Based on your claim of being the "Voice of the People," what is that voice
saying about land ownership disputes and evictions?
The land issue is coming up a lot. I've been getting lots of feedback. Many people
want justice. But, in Cambodia you can only solve problems if the government actually
wants to solve them. There are two reasons for disputes. First, the top ranks of
government, and second rich businessmen. When the value of the land increases, business
owners urge people at the top of government to force the people off the land. I feel
this issue is caused by the government. I do not support the government policy of
moving those who live in one place to another place. They move people like animals.
How are these land disputes, displacements and evictions affecting life in Cambodia?
This kind of problem shows that there is no security in Cambodia. When villagers
protest about being evicted, the government accuses the villagers of causing chaos.
And if they protest more they get killed or go to prison. Hun Sen recognizes that
Cambodia has this chaos, but it is corruption that causes chaos. The land issue makes
it difficult for people to live. I cannot believe a government would do this to its
What type of feedback are you getting from people who have been evicted or affected
by a land dispute?
People come to me a lot about land issues. Even though people live in a country that
has laws, they have no hope. People are protesting just for the right to live and
survive. They are afraid that if they protest too much they will be killed or thrown
in prison. People come to me with no hope. They can see that the government is not
solving problems in Cambodia. When they come to me they are seeking relief. It's
like a weight off their chest.
How many Cambodians are being affected by land disputes?
I think the number is more than 200,000 families. And some people don't dare to speak
about it. They are afraid. Land is an extremely big issue. It is about human rights.
If you take away land people have no place to live and no way to make a living.
What is your assessment of the recent Tonle Bassac Village 14 eviction and relocation
to Dangkao district?
I went to see the people from Tonle Bassac [at the relocation site] and they don't
even have water to drink. They have only plastic shelters. It's like hell. Everyone
- old people, handicapped people, children and babies - is just running around. They
don't have anything to eat. I wonder how the government can sleep at night.
Is it the government's responsibility to help these citizens?
I don't understand "my government." They move people and don't even offer
rice. These people are poor and the government must help them. This is a humanitarian
crisis. They should have looked into the situation in advance. It is the job of the
government to solve this problem. It is all due to corruption.
What advice do you give to people when they come to you to speak about land disputes?
In reality, the people don't have much knowledge. They come and ask for rice and
food and medical care. But I am not the Red Cross, I just do what I can to help.
Every day it's like this. People are afraid, afraid to express their ideas or they'll
go to jail. If they protest violently they get killed. This is because of the government.
In your opinion what will solve the problems over land ownership?
The issue won't ever end. It won't end until Samdech Hun Sen is willing to stop it.
The land problems come from people with money, and people with money support Hun
Sen. They just take the land. [The government] doesn't develop land for society,
they sell it to businessmen.