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Will 2015 be a year of change for Cambodia’s land rights crisis?

Boeung Kak Lake activist Nget Khun
Boeung Kak Lake activist Nget Khun, calls to community members from a window at Phnom Penh Municipal Court last month after she was detained by authorities. Vireak Mai

Will 2015 be a year of change for Cambodia’s land rights crisis?

Earlier this month, in Prey Sar prison on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, I sat and talked with Tep Vanny, Song Srey Leap, Kong Chantha and Nget Khun, four inspirational activists from the city’s Boeung Kak lake community. They were jailed in early November after protesting against the now infamous 2007 real estate deal which saw the lake filled with sand and thousands of people forcibly evicted.

They looked pale and tired, but spoke with quiet dignity of their determination to seek justice for the loss of their land. In today’s Cambodia, they are not alone.

Steady economic growth and a large influx of aid since the end of civil war in the early 1990s have brought significant change to the country. According to World Bank estimates, Cambodia achieved the UN Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty by 2009, and Phnom Penh is now dotted with a growing number of sleek new apartment buildings, shopping malls and fashionable coffee shops.

However, as the country’s violent past recedes, Cambodia is in the grip of a volatile new conflict over land and natural resources. Policies pursuing economic liberalisation, export expansion and foreign investment have led to rising prices and an insatiable demand for land, leading to frequent clashes between the interests of local communities and politically connected big business. With large swathes of the country leased for commercial exploitation through economic land concessions, insecurity of tenure due to a widespread lack of formal land titles and weak rule of law have facilitated a wave of land grabs and forced evictions, sometimes accompanied by shocking levels of violence.

The scale of the problem can seem overwhelming, but despite the dangers, brave men and women across Cambodia are standing up to challenge violations of their land rights. Often, they are met with harassment and attacks. Within 36 hours of the arrest of seven Boeung Kak lake community activists on November 10, including those I met with, all had been detained, interviewed by a prosecutor, charged with obstructing traffic, tried, convicted and sentenced to a year in jail and issued a $500 fine, the maximum permitted under the law. A further three women and a monk faced similar treatment the following day, detained while protesting the arrest of their fellow activists and hastily convicted of obstructing public officials.

However, when complaints are lodged against powerful business interests attempting to forcibly acquire land, the justice system is not so nimble. In 2005, a dispute arose between the family of Ly Srea Kheng from Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kork district and a company owned by Khun Sear, a business associate of the head of the Senate President’s Bodyguard Unit. They have endured a campaign of threats and attacks by security guards hired by the company, including having a bag of venomous cobras thrown into their house. Despite several complaints filed before the courts, no action has been taken against the perpetrators. By contrast, following complaints from Khun Sear, police arrested Kheng on the morning of November 18 without showing a warrant or even allowing him time to get properly dressed. His 23-year-old daughter Ly Seav Minh was arrested later the same day. That evening, a company representative contacted Kheng’s son to negotiate, suggesting an abuse of the judicial process to force the family to accept the company’s terms. Kheng was bailed on December 5, but his daughter remains in detention.

Such harsh treatment of vulnerable people embroiled in land disputes does nothing to resolve the underlying problems, and can only exacerbate tensions among affected communities. As the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) has previously documented, one reason for the large number of disputes is a lack of adequate resolution mechanisms. Few people are even aware of those that do exist, which in any case have proved largely ineffective. Despite the many legal protections found in Cambodia’s Constitution, national and international law, illegal land grabs continue.

While institutional and judicial reform is certainly necessary, what is truly lacking is the political will to protect land rights in practice. Hun Sen’s “Heroic Samdech Techo Volunteer Youth” land-titling campaign, aimed at strengthening security of tenure through the provision of formal land titles, met with tentative initial praise, but proved highly problematic in execution and failed to assess disputed land. The government is currently developing a white paper on land policy and a new law on environmental impact assessments, initiatives that to its credit have involved consultations with civil society, but whether their concerns will be addressed remains to be seen.

In the absence of decisive action on the part of the government, local communities and civil society are coming up with innovative strategies to challenge land rights violations. After years of campaigning, activists from Boeung Kak lake welcomed Singaporean firm HLH’s recent decision to withdraw from the development for “commercial reasons”. Elsewhere, in a landmark case of transnational human rights litigation, villagers from Koh Kong have brought claims against UK sugar giant Tate and Lyle in the UK courts with support from the Community Legal Education Center. The villagers say that they were violently evicted from their land by armed military police to make way for sugar plantations, which the company subsequently sourced from.

While these noble efforts are to be lauded, the primary responsibility for dealing with insecurity of tenure and ensuring the peaceful resolution of disputes remains with the government. CCHR is calling for the release of all land activists detained simply for protesting violations of their human rights. In 2014, communities caught up in Cambodia’s land rights crisis stood up with bravery and resolve to demand change. I only hope that in 2015, the government will finally heed their calls.

Chak Sopheap is the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

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