x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Outcry over thousands of evictions in Cambodia

Clearing of settlements to make way for private developments draws protests from rights activists, foreign aid donors and the UN.

A family eats breakfast outdoors as the community in which they lived is demolished by the Phnom Penh municipality last Friday.
A family eats breakfast outdoors as the community in which they lived is demolished by the Phnom Penh municipality last Friday.

PHNOM PENH // Cambodia's government is facing criticism from international donors concerned about an apparent clampdown on civil society while tens of thousands of people are being forced from their homes to make way for private -developers. About 150,000 Cambodians are in danger of being evicted from their land, according to Amnesty International. A local organisation, STT, estimated that 11 per cent of the capital's population has been forcibly relocated since 1991. Reports of forced evictions throughout the country routinely appear in local newspapers. The ruling Cambodian People's Party has launched a series of legal actions designed, critics say, to silence opposition. Journalists working for opposition newspapers have been targeted and some have been sentenced to prison. The country's most popular opposition newspaper recently ceased publication after its editor was threatened with criminal charges. Rather than using the civil code, which does not include jail terms, the government has chosen to pursue legal action through criminal laws written by the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (Untac), a peacekeeping mission. Those laws were intended to be temporary and were drawn up specifically to enforce security during the 1993 national elections when the country was still racked by civil war. "It appears that the courts are being used to silence critics of the government by relying on the outdated Untac disinformation statute instead of the 1995 press law, which was designed to promote fair, balanced reporting," said John Johnson, a spokesman for the US Embassy. "We hope that in the future, charges of defamation or insults will be handled through personal arbitration whenever possible or mediated by using the civil code," he added. Phay Siphan, a government spokesman, said Cambodia is simply using the legal means at its disposal to ensure that journalists do not threaten stability with flawed reporting. The government has also launched lawsuits against human rights activists and opposition politicians, including Mu Sochua, a member of the Sam Rainsy Party. Ms Mu will defend herself in court tomorrow against defamation charges filed by the prime minister because her lawyer stepped down after being threatened with a lawsuit and disbarment. Ms Mu said she hoped the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, would raise human rights issues when she meets Cambodian officials today during a regional security conference in Thailand. She said she has been in contact with people working for Mrs Clinton, whom she first met in the mid-1990s through her work as a women's rights activist. "Hillary knows of my problem for sure," said Ms Mu, but added that Mrs Clinton will probably choose to put her case into the broader context of human rights violations. The government has filed at least nine politically motivated lawsuits in recent months, according to -Human Rights Watch. Ms Mu said the lawsuits have a dual purpose of silencing opposition voices while distracting attention from such controversial issues as mass evictions. The most recent eviction in Phnom Penh began at dawn last Friday, when workers hired by the municipality began dismantling the remaining homes of a community of about 150 families as police and soldiers in riot gear stood by. The community had been fighting for legal title of the land since 2004. A 2001 law decreed that residents who had occupied public land for at least five years up until that point should be given ownership. But the law has rarely been enforced. Just before midnight last Thursday, a group of 11 international donors and aid agencies issued a statement calling on the government to halt forced evictions in Cambodia "until a fair and transparent mechanism for resolving land disputes is put in place". "In an environment of escalating urban land values in Cambodia and speculative land buying and selling, urban dwellers are under threat of being moved to make way for high value property development," said the statement, which was signed by the World Bank and the UN, as well as embassies, including those of the United Kingdom, United States and Australia. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned the eviction the next day: "The relocation was not voluntary, as families left under duress and were presented with no other option but to accept inadequate compensation." Officials said the houses, which included several two-storey wooden homes among other less impressive structures, were removed to make way for a "beautification" project. Mann Choeun, Phnom Penh's deputy governor, told reporters the relocation was done in a "respectful and humanitarian way". He noted that municipal workers were instructed to save building materials so residents could use them to construct new homes on plots of land provided by the government. But residents said they were not happy with the relocation site, which is more than 20km outside the city. "It's not good - no electricity, no water. Everything is bad there and I don't want to live there. It's so far from my school," a tearful Kim Soa said as crews demolished neighbouring houses. Her father tried until the last -moment to negotiate a better price for his house, but in the end he was forced to accept the US$8,000 (Dh29,000) offered by the government. Families were given the choice of taking $8,000 cash, $5,000 and a plot of land, or $1,000 and an apartment at the relocation site. Daniel King, a lawyer with the Community Legal Education Centre, said an independent market assessment of the eviction site valued the land at more than $15 million. Mr King noted that international donors gave Cambodia almost $1 billion last year, which accounts for about half the national budget. He welcomed statements from the international community, but added that donors have failed to take action against the Cambodian government. "There isn't follow-through on the words that the international community is speaking," he said. @Email:jferrie@thenational.ae