Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Commentary: Cambodia's war against the powerful brings terror to the powerless

HONG KONG, May. 16

Land-grabbing has been one of the most serious issues facing Cambodia since it abandoned communist collectivization at the end of the 1980s to embrace a market economy based on private property. In recent years, this problem has become worse as land conflicts have dramatically increased.

A non-governmental organization (NGO) listed 1,551 cases between 1991 and 2004, affecting nearly 160,300 families or almost 7 percent of the population. Another NGO alone received 335 cases in 2005 and 450 in 2006 in which it dispensed legal assistance to victims.

Land-grabbing has affected urban dwellers, rural folks and ethnic minorities alike with the land primarily being grabbed by the powerful and the rich backed by powerful officials. Using their high position and influence, land-grabbers can secure eviction orders and the enforcement of these orders from the state machinery without going through due process of law and without paying fair and just compensation to evictees.

For instance, in 2006, a powerful company got the Ministry of Interior to force 168 families living in Phnom Penh, whose land the government conceded to that company, to accept average compensation of less than US$20 per square meter of land, while the estimated market price was US$200, and then forcibly evict them. Facing such injustices, evictees had no choice but to resist their eviction to demand fair and just compensation. Force and intimidation were then used against them as the police and military police, armed with assault rifles, electric batons and riot shields, were sent to break up the resistance, demolish evictees' dwellings and force occupants to vacate their land.

Frequent forced evictions have not led to the end of land-grabbing, and protests against them and the issue itself have only become worse year after year, to such a degree that Prime Minister Hun Sen has repeatedly warned it could spark a "peasant revolution." In March 2007, Hun Sen secured full support from his party, the Cambodian People's Party (CPP), to declare a "war against land-grabbers," whom he identified as "CPP officials" and "people in power." His remarks were a positive development as the prime minister, known as the "strongman" of Cambodia with all power centralized in his hands, personally addressed the issue.

Critics have said, however, that this high-profile "war," staged just weeks before the commune election on April 1, was simply campaign rhetoric. Perhaps it is too soon to give credence to these critics, but this "war" has not earned Hun Sen many victories as yet, for it has only subdued an army major, an army general and a tycoon for land-grabbing. Furthermore, it has provided no security to victims of some 2,000 land-grabbing cases lodged with the National Authority for the Resolution of Land Disputes.

Moreover, on April 20, Say Hak, the governor of Sihanoukville, a seaport on the Gulf of Thailand, turned this "war" into terror for 107 families by sending armed police and security personnel to forcibly evict them from their 17 hectares of land for the benefit of Sen. Sy Kong Triv, a CPP tycoon. That day Say Hak, together with his deputy, the town prosecutor, the police commissioner and military police commander, led about 100 police and military police officers armed with AK47 assault rifles, electric batons and tear gas to search for illegal weapons in the homes of these families. Although they had a warrant, this search for weapons was merely a legal cloak to cover up the eviction of the families as the security forces failed to find any weapon and instead took their land.

The families resisted and clashes ensued. The security forces fired shots in the air and into the ground and charged the villagers, using their rifle butts, electric batons and water canons to disperse them. Thirteen men among the villagers were seriously beaten, and many women were assaulted. A 75-year-old man in the village was so severely beaten and electrocuted that he required hospital treatment. Three members of the security forces were also injured.

The security forces arrested 13 villagers for "battery with intent" and "wrongful damage to property." These villagers are now detained in the prison in Sihanoukville. The police are also looking for other villagers, and 30 to 40 of them have gone into hiding for fear of being arrested.

Meanwhile, Say Hak has filed a criminal lawsuit against Chhim Savuth, a human rights investigator, for "inciting" the villagers to form a "breakaway zone independent of government rule." Chhim Savuth has thus also gone into hiding as well.

Say Hak's terror against these families and his pursuit of some of their members and a human rights activist are his way to help people in power grab land from powerless people. He once confided that "it is not difficult to settle land disputes: it is a matter of eliminating one or two gang leaders, and these conflicts will be over." He does not care about the plight of these 107 families who found that their homes, crops and other belongings, including motorbikes, bicycles, generators, TVs, VCRs, DVDs, clothes, kitchen utensils and domestic animals, were destroyed by fire, tractors and bulldozers during the eviction. These families have been made destitute and are now camping under plastic shelters or trees under monsoon rains and the tropical hot sun on the roadsides along Highway 4 leading to Phnom Penh. They are surviving on relief handouts from humanitarian organizations.

Say Hak has not stopped with this eviction though. His connivance with land-grabbers continued on May 11 when he issued another order of eviction to 18 families and gave them 20 days to vacate their land. Knowing his way of ending land disputes, these families face the same terror as those previous 107 families if they defy his order. Hun Sen needs to stop Say Hak's abuses before other governors turn his "war against land-grabbers" into terror against powerless people in other towns and provinces if his "war" is to have any meaning.

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