Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Poor people learn to stand up for their rights

Poor people learn to stand up for their rights

Poor people learn to stand up for their rights

Hem Lim, sister of imprisoned Sambok Chab journalist Hem Choun, stands at the barbed wire fencing surrounding Prey Sar Prison as their mother Meash Ouk stands in the background. The jailing of eviction protesters like Chuon has led many poor residents to look for new ways to fight back against forced evictions.

For poor Cambodians, fighting an eviction in Cambodia can be a case of David versus

Goliath. In many cases, badly organized communities are forced into conflict with

powerful, well-connected, business and political élites.

The consequences of fighting back can be violence, jail or even death, as in the

case of the bloody forced eviction of Poipet villagers in 2005, when police shot

dead five villagers.

But increasing numbers of Cambodians are seeking assistance when challenging the

government's controversial displacement processes, a range of experts have told the


"Three years ago there was no opposition," said Vann Molyvann, renowned

Cambodian architect and former Minister of culture, fine arts and urbanization. "Now

they fight!"

As land grabs and forced evictions become more common, even people who are not yet

affected have begun to take steps to prepare themselves, said Chou Vineath, attorney

at the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC).

"People living in communities not currently threatened with eviction are concerned

by what the government is doing," she said. "Who knows? In one month, two

months, a year, it could be them. So they come to our office, and they ask for advice


In 2004, 585 families came to the CLEC to ask for advice on a land dispute. In 2005,

that number jumped to 772 families, and in the first six months of 2006, 12,199 families

and an entire village sought help from CLEC, one of several NGOs that help poor people

assert their legal rights.

The statistical records of local human rights NGO Licadho reveal a similar trend:

in 2004, it received and investigated 99 cases affecting 1,702 victims, the next

year 117 cases and 9,832 victims, and in the first six months of 2006, 66 cases and

6,849 victims.

"First, we say 'Organize your community very well; if possible choose representatives

and also keep records of all documents you have related to the land'," CLEC's

Vineath said. "We always advise them not to use violence and we explain their

legal rights."

According to Vineath, the statistics indicate that the increase in collective action

is significant for two key reasons. First, it improves the chances of the community

securing a better deal in their eviction. Second, in the long term, it is a key part

of improving the Cambodian state's relationship to its citizens.

Daniel Adler, Team Leader of the World Bank's Justice for the Poor program and coordinator

for the as-yet-unpublished Exploratory Study of Collective Grievances over Land and

Local Governance in Cambodia, says collective action by the poor seems to be the

key to any hope of success when they struggle for their rights against the rich and


"Where they acted collectively, villagers were able to achieve more equitable

outcomes than might otherwise have been the case," he said.

"Collective action is a crucial mechanism for improving the responsiveness of

the state to the needs of the poor."

Communities across Cambodia are cottoning on. In Phnom Penh's Village 15, or the

"Happy Community," eviction has been planned for several years and villagers

have embraced collective action in an attempt to secure themselves a better compensation


"We created a community group, elected representatives and asked for help from

NGOs," said Thou Somony, Village 15 resident. "I don't want them to evict

me, but I really don't want them to take my land and give me nothing in return -

so that is why we organise ourselves."

In Phnom Penh, networks of resistance have emerged and inspired communities to fight

City Hall. The CLEC's Vineath said each forced eviction along the Tonle Bassac -

starting late last year with the removal of the Koh Pich islanders - has served to

reinforce resistance in the next area slated to be cleared.

"We were working on the Sambok Chab eviction and we found that other communities

in the area - Village 78 and the Happy Community - were likely to be affected,"

she said. "So we went to talk to them, started researching their case and they

are very happy to work with us."

Spreading the word that people are not alone forms a major part encouraging resistance,

said opposition leader Sam Rainsy.

"We first ask them 'Have you called human rights groups? Have you called the

press'," he said. "Instinctively the victims feel real comfort if there

are people who witness or share in their suffering. The more people who know the


The legal framework in place in Cambodia is sufficient to prevent people from losing

their property, but it is imperative that people are taught how to use the law to

fight for their rights, he said.

"When confronting the authorities that abuse their rights, we encourage people

to call upon the laws that are meant to protect them," he said. "If the

state needs their land it must give compensation; that is enshrined in our legislation.

"We tell them not to kneel," Rainsy said. "We tell them not to lose

hope - the law is strong enough to protect them."

When the 146 families of Bassac's Group 78 were handed notices on July 24 telling them the city would be evicting them on July 31 and relocating them remote Trapeang Krasang, they began to organize their opposition, arguing that they are the lawful owners of the land. The eviction has not yet taken place.

Molyvann said that for years, Cambodians have passively accepted maltreatment by

those in power. But there is only so long that this can continue.

"We consider Cambodians to be very quiet, very obedient to their rulers,"

he said. "It takes a very long time, many years of mismanagement and mistakes,

to get the people to explode, but when they do explode it is impossible to contain


Such an "explosion" may be drawing closer as opposition politicians, NGOs

and legal experts work with communities facing eviction to strengthen both their

morale and their legal arguments.

Although more communities are embracing collective action in an attempt to negotiate

or overturn their evictions, they are still meeting with little success.

"The company which wants our land won't talk to us," said Village 15 resident

Somony. "Even the court issued a notice saying they must negotiate with us but

they won't. There has been no talk of compensation; no one knows what will happen

if we get evicted."

But the World Bank's Adler said the very fact that communities are mobilizing is

a tentative sign of progress towards good governance in Cambodia.

"International experience has shown that good governance emerges at least partially

in response to demand from citizens for greater accountability and better quality

of services," he said. "What we have documented in our research are organic

expressions of the demand for better governance around land issues Cambodia."

At its current stage of development, resistance in Cambodia must be viewed within

the current framework of governance in Cambodia, Adler said.

"The forms of organization [against evictions and land grabbing] we are witnessing

are embryonic," he said. "Government responses are not always positive

and it is a well known fact that recent high-profile land disputes have led to violence

and even killings. In these circumstances both the ability of citizens to peacefully

express their demands on government and the capacity of government to respond to

demand in a constructive fashion need to be supported."


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