Despite some of the best laws in Asia, activists say, local implementation is lacking.
A UN panel has called on Cambodia to redouble its commitment to protecting the rights of its indigenous minority communities, joining a chorus of concerns from rights activists who have warned of a “crisis” among the country’s indigenous populations.
In its concluding observations to a hearing on Cambodia last month, the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), lauded the presence of a legal framework for the protection of indigenous rights, but said it was hampered by weak implementation.
“While welcoming the efforts made by the State party to adopt a wide range of legislation in areas such as asylum, access to land, access to education, the prohibition of racial discrimination, the Committee is concerned with the lack of uniform and faithful implementation and enforcement of these laws,” the CERD noted.
It also said the quest for economic growth via the granting of large-scale agricultural and mining concessions had been “to the detriment” of many indigenous communities.
At a press conference Wednesday, Van Samech, an ethnic Kuoy representing Kampong Speu’s indigenous populations, said that communities had lost burial grounds and spirit forests to a 9,985-hectare agricultural concession, undermining their social health.
“Children lose their educational opportunity. Youths develop bad behaviour and ignore their traditions. Wildlife is lost. It affects our health and makes the climate change,” she said.
“The authorities threatened us not to protest and not even to cry. We want the government to respect the rights of all aborigines by abiding by the constitutional law and the land law.”
Representatives of 12 indigenous groups from Ratanakkiri province say they have thumbprinted a petition that they plan to give to Prime Minister Hun Sen when he travels to the province to inaugurate National Road 78 today. The petition expresses their worry about the loss of land and natural resources to private development.
“We want the government to study thoroughly the bad effects which can happen to our communities before licencing any company to develop the land,” said Kham Phor Savat, 42, a Tumpuon representative from Lumphat district.
Chith Sam Ath, executive director of the NGO Forum, said that the government had granted nearly a million hectares in economic land concessions across the country, but that only a small amount of land had been given to minority groups. When people protest, he added, activists are often accused of incitement.
“What we are doing is not meant to incite minority groups to defy the government. We just want to bring them their rights and help them protect their land and forest,” he said.
Ty Sokun, director general of the Forestry Administration at the Ministry of Agriculture, said he had not yet read CERD’s recommendations, but rejected the idea that Cambodian minority groups had the automatic right to use community forests in perpetuity.
One activist, however, said many communities he has spoken to are not against development, but want development to happen “on their terms”. “They want to be in control of that change,” said Graeme Brown, a consultant on indigenous minority rights. Without being granted local agency, he added, groups could suffer a rise in social problems such as alcohol abuse.
Brown called on donors, which have prompted positive change for indigenous peoples in the past, to take fresh action to ensure the government implements laws already on the books. “When you look at Cambodia, it has some of the best legal frameworks in Asia – they just need to be implemented,” he said.
ADDITIONAl REPORTING BY SEBASTIAN STRANGIO