Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-CAMBODIA: Land Grabbing – A Serious Concern

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Jan 27 2008 (IPS) - At the beginning of January, Ros Sovann was just another private security guard one sees standing outside fancy restaurants and the homes of the rich in Phnom Penh. By month end, the 28-year-old had catapulted from obscurity to become the symbol of rage spreading through Cambodia over land grabbing.

Ros’ transformation took place shortly before midnight on Jan. 13 in front of a house in the Cambodian capital, owned by Chin Kim Sreng, a 70-year-old parliamentarian from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Sometime close to 11:30 p.m., Ros brutally attacked Chin with a steel pipe as the latter had got out of his luxury car to open the gate of his house, say reports in the local press.

But Ros was not finished, despite his beatings leaving Chin bleeding and with open head wounds, added an account in the Khmer language ‘Rasmei Kampuchea’ newspaper. He had then got into Chin’s car and crashed it into the gate.

Ros’ arrest by the police and subsequent confession revealed that there was more to the attack than the visible facts. He said in his statement that he was exacting revenge on the country’s powerful government officials responsible for grabbing the land that his family owned in a village on the outskirts of Phnom. The lost land was to have helped his family raise funds to pay for his wedding.

‘’(Ros) said he had had no personal grudges against Chin,’’ states the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), a Hong Kong-based regional rights lobby. ‘’However, since the loss of his land he had harboured strong resentment for all powerful officials, so much so that, on becoming a security guard, he had requested his firm to assign him to guard their houses so that he could have opportunities to take revenge on them.’’

The attack – while not being condoned – has attracted the attention of international and local rights groups who have been raising a cry against the strong-arm tactics used by Cambodian authorities to evict hundreds of the country’s urban and rural poor from their homes and their lands. ‘’Ros’ attack on lawmaker Chin Kim Sreng, brutal as it was, should not be treated as a crime like many others,’’ noted the AHRC. ‘’It should be taken very seriously as it was a cry for justice for himself and for other victims of the injustices of land grabbing.’’

In fact others reveal that such an act of violence by the victims of evictions against government officials is new. ‘’It is the first case that I have heard of, although our organisation does not condone such violence,’’ says Dan Nicholson, coordinator for the Asia and Pacific Programme at the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), a Geneva-based housing and land rights lobby. ‘’The victims have often pursued peaceful means to advocate for their rights.’’

Such non-violent activity, either through community-organised protests or turning to the courts, comes despite growing frustration about the heavy odds the evicted men, women and children are up against. ‘’The people feel very frustrated at the difficulty they are having to defend their rights,’’ Nicholson revealed during a telephone interview from Phnom Penh. ‘’The courts have not been very helpful, and there are cases of intimidation and threats used against the community leaders who challenge the authorities after the eviction.’’

Last November even saw two deaths, many injuries and hundreds evicted from their homes in a typical campaign the Cambodian authorities launched to secure land from the poor. As always, armed police, soldiers and the military police were used in such eviction operations. The security forces shot dead two people on Nov. 15 during ‘’a forced eviction in the remote northern Preah Vihear province,’’ said Amnesty International, the London-based global rights campaigner. ‘’The victims, one man and one woman, belonged to a group of 317 families – over 1,500 people – evicted by more than 200 armed (members of the security force).’’

The push by Cambodian authorities to drive the poor from their lands in Phnom Penh, beachside tourist resorts like Sihanoukville and central provincial areas like Kompong have grown with intensity since 2006. That year saw over 7,000 people thrown out of their homes in Phnom Penh to enable private sector investments build new apartments, business centres and shopping malls on the lands.

According to local rights group, the heavy-handed measures used by authorities to grab real estate from the vulnerable exposes the downside of Cambodia’s march to shed its image as a poverty-stricken country. This South-east Asian nation, which has enjoyed over a decade of relative peace after nearly two decades of a brutal conflict, posted economic growth averaging 11 percent annually over the past three years. Tourism and garments are the country’s money-spinners.

Most troubling for groups like the Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC) is the Cambodian government’s attitude towards the 2001 Land Law, which offered a new framework regards land ownership in a country where there was no strong culture of land rights and private land ownership. What was more, the little records of title deeds the country had were destroyed when Cambodia was ruled in the late 1970s by the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot.

‘’The 2001 Land Law is progressive. It recognises the right of people who have lived on a piece of land for over five years to be entitled to the land’s title,’’ Yeng Virak, executive director of CLEC, said in a telephone interview from his organisation’s office in Phnom Penh. ‘’There has been a systematic effort to register land over the past six years.’’

But the poor who have been targeted for evictions are among the millions who have not received the ‘’paper work’’ to lay claim to the land they are living on. Consequently, they have become victims of the manner in which the Cambodian government is interpreting the two types of state land in the country – for public use that needs protection, such as forests, and for private use, which can be sold for development.

‘’The government is saying that the people being evicted do not have the legal claims on the land and that such property is state land meant for private use, for economic activity,’’ says Yeng. ‘’And only some of the families who have been evicted have received compensation. Others have been dumped in an area where there are no facilities.’’

It is a development model that wins little support from Yeng, whose organisation is providing legal assistance to some of the evicted communities. ‘’Economic development is good, but the problem is when it is done at all costs,’’ he explains. ‘’The land issue is becoming a very serious concern here.’’

 
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