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Land crisis demands independent courts

Land crisis demands independent courts

WHEN police opened fire on unarmed farmers protesting confiscation of their land in Siem Reap province on March 22, four villagers were seriously wounded. Luon Men - shot in both thighs - will probably be disabled for life.

Almost six months later, Men's uncle is still pressing officials to explain why not a single charge has been filed against the police who fired on the farmers, or those who ordered them to shoot. "Soldiers and police should use their guns to protect people, not shoot them," Men's uncle - a Buddhist monk named Venerable Luon Sovath - told me recently. Photographs and video footage that Venerable Savath and others compiled on the incident appear to show dazed and stunned farmers - some with gashes and gaping wounds - tied to poles after the shooting, which took place in the presence of provincial officials.

According to eyewitnesses, the police said immediately after the shooting that it was legal to shoot the farmers as long as they aimed below the waist. Instead of investigating the police who shot the protesters, authorities arrested and jailed 11 of the farmers, who now await trial on robbery charges. This week the provincial court summoned for questioning three of the farmers who were shot - including one still in hospital, who had to be transported from there to court.

The wounded men now face possible defamation charges for daring to file a complaint about the incident with the Justice Ministry. Such is the nature of "justice" in Cambodia.

Lawsuits against government critics are the latest in a series of well-worn - and abused - 'legal' tactics used by officials and powerful people in Cambodia to silence dissent. Violence is the other tool. Though the crackdown in Siem Reap was one of the most violent confrontations in a land dispute in Cambodia so far this year, it was no isolated incident.

Cambodians across the country are increasingly losing their homes, land and natural resources on which their livelihoods depend to make way for commercial development, agri-business plantations, hydro-electricity dams and mining concessions. In Phnom Penh alone, at least 30,000 urban poor have been forced from their homes in recent years. More than 150,000 people nationwide are at risk of losing their land and their homes.

When communities seek information about land confiscations and peaceful resolution of land disputes, they are increasingly met with harassment, intimidation, arrest and violent evictions.

Government officials often deploy heavily armed police and soldiers to force people off their land without court orders or any form of fair hearing for the owners or occupiers of the land. Authorities have arrested or jailed dozens of activists, often on spurious charges, for defending their land rights.

Most of the Siem Reap farmers driven from their land in March had farmed those fields since the late1980s. Under Cambodian law, this entitles them to the right to continue farming and eventually obtain title to the land.

Most farmers in Cambodia, however, have yet to obtain formal titles, which often require bribes or political connections. The people now claiming legal "ownership" are well-connected businessmen with the means to call on virtually every state mechanism for support: courts; district and
provincial officials; and, finally, police and soldiers.

Despite the government's issuing more than 1 million land titles since 2002 in a World Bank-supported project, the vast majority of Cambodia's urban and rural poor have been excluded. A World Bank review of the US$24 million programme, released this week, called on the government to remedy the fact that "some land areas have been excluded from titling without clear criteria or explanation provided to the local communities".

The urgency of Cambodia's land crisis prompted a rare public appeal recently from development partners. In July, the World Bank, the UN, the Asian Development Bank, the European Commission, the Swedish International Development Agency and several embassies called on the government to stop forced evictions until fair and transparent land-dispute and resettlement mechanisms are in place.

The Cambodian government has not only ignored such appeals, but rebuffed them. On Monday, the government announced the termination of the World Bank's land-titling project. The reason, according to the government, was that the partnership with the World Bank was "difficult and complicated" and "had too many conditions".

The government appears to have become as impervious to the humanitarian appeals of its international donors as it is to the plight of its poorest citizens, but there is growing awareness among the poor of their rights under local and international law.

On Thursday farmers representing tens of thousands of people nationwide gathered in Phnom Penh, seeking responses to land rights complaints they submitted a month ago. Many of these brave people will now face threats to their personal security, as well as spurious legal battles that could land them in prison.

Rather than filing lawsuits against - or opening fire on - land rights activists, the government should resolve these complaints. Land disputes should be settled in an independent court, not by armed police and soldiers. Ownership should be determined by Cambodia's Land Law, rather than wealth and political connections. Until authorities can properly implement and respect Cambodia's Land Law, the government should enact a moratorium on forced evictions.

The government should also ensure the safety of peaceful land rights advocates such as Venerable Sovath, whose calls for justice have been met by threats and intimidation. Soldiers threatened to storm his temple to confiscate the video he compiled of the shooting episode and aftermath.

The Siem Reap crackdown caused villagers to go into hiding, fearful of being shot or arrested. "Many farmers fled, leaving their cooking pots behind," Venerable Sovath told me. "All they had was fear, frustration and empty stomachs. They struggled to hide from local authorities, police and soldiers, who neither respect nor fear the law or human rights because they have power."

Unarmed farmers being shot and city dwellers being forced from their homes at gunpoint are grim reminders of the country's past under the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s. This is not what international donors have in mind when they make annual pledges to cover more than half of Cambodia's national budget.

Venerable Sovath laments the difficulties faced by villages throughout Cambodia: "Now when farmers raise their voices about loss of their land, they are threatened, jailed or brought to court and sued," he said.

In his home province of Siem Reap, the situation has turned grim." The farmers' paddy fields used to be busy," Venerable Sovath said. "The sound was sweet and joyful with farmers singing, laughing and dancing to deal with the hard work. Now the fields are for weeping. They are grief-stricken places. This is because the rich have collaborated with the powerful to take the land."

Sara Colm, a senior researcher For Human Rights Watch, has been working in Cambodia since 1992.


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