A global coalition of grassroots groups of small food producers and food sovereignty advocates has called on a United Nations expert to probe allegations of state-perpetrated land grabs in Cambodia ahead of an upcoming review of the human rights situation in the country.
In a statement issued over the weekend, the People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty (PCFS) urged the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia Rhona Smith to investigate after more than 1,000 people from around the country gathered to submit their land dispute claims to various government agencies in the capital Phnom Penh on Nov. 6, but were blocked by authorities.
“We are enraged that people were denied their rights to freely express, assemble, and raise their grievances to the government,” PCFS’ global chairperson Sylvia Mallari said of the gathering’s organizers, who were led by PCFS member group Coalition of Cambodian Farmers Community (CCFC).
“The reasons cited by the Cambodian authorities are unacceptable such as the claim that the demonstration would have been ‘a disruption of public order.’ In fact, we actually find it ironic that the excuse used by the authorities to deny the communities of their freedom was the ceremonial procession practice for the country’s National Independence Day.”
Mallari noted that the gathering took place while Smith was still in Cambodia during her sixth visit to investigate the status of human rights in the country, saying it was “unfortunate that Smith missed what happened.”
Following her 11-day visit, which concluded on Nov. 8, Smith called for “more transparency, fairness and … a holistic approach” in addressing land disputes, and called for the dropping of charges against land rights activist Tep Vanny.
Mallari welcomed the Special Rapporteur’s comments and called on her to investigate the revival of charges against community leaders and development workers in Preah Vihear province’s Prame commune following a fact-finding mission PCFS co-organized with local group Ponlok Khmer (PKH) there last September.
The fact-finding mission found that China’s Guangdong Hengfu Group Sugar Industry Co. has grabbed more than 13,000 hectares (32,125 acres) of land in Preah Vihear, in addition to the 36,000 hectares (89,000 acres) it was awarded as part of a 2011 government concession.
A dispute over land lost to Hengfu has dragged on for years without resolution, and villagers claim they have lost their rights to rice fields, communal forests, water resources, and resin trees. Representatives of the community were among those who tried to join the Nov. 6 gathering in Phnom Penh.
'Act of intimidation'
“This is clearly an act of intimidation to pacify the resistance of the affected communities, which is consistent with the mission’s findings that local and national authorities are facilitating Hengfu’s land grabbing,” Mallari said of the revived charges.
“Such repressive actions only affirm the legitimacy of the rural people’s struggles against land grabbing, among the many other violations of their human rights in Cambodia. The government has chosen to listen to its foreign and corporate backers, at the great expense of the rural communities and indigenous peoples—as well as the environment.”
Mallari called for the inclusion of cases of repression associated with land disputes in the Universal Periodic Review of Cambodia by the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in January 2019.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service on Monday, Theng Savoeun, CCFC’s secretary general, applauded the statement from PCFS in support of the villagers from Prame commune.
“These people came to Phnom Penh because they have been abused by the Chinese company and powerful people,” he said.
“They have lost faith in the authorities, who have failed to provide them with a resolution for many years.”
Attempts to reach government spokesperson Phay Siphan by phone for comment on the Prame commune land dispute went unanswered Monday, but he has previously stated that the issue is “already resolved,” and that those who have demanded further action are either “anti-Chinese or anti-government.”
PKH executive director Ang Cheat Lom dismissed Phay Siphan’s previous statement on Monday, saying his group “isn’t against the Chinese company or government development.”
“However, we are against corruption, illegal activities, and destruction of natural resources,” he added.
Ang Cheat Lom also slammed Preah Vihear’s investigating judge Chien Sros for issuing a summons requiring two of his organization’s staff members to appear for questioning on Wednesday over the confiscation of two of Hengfu’s bulldozers during a protest in December 2014.
“This case is a form of pressure against a civil society organization working to assist destitute villagers, especially members of an ethnic minority group affected by major development projects and land grabbing activities,” he said, adding that the action will “further restrict the freedom of civil society and villagers seeking a resolution.”
He said his staffers, Pick Sophorn and Lut Sang, will not honor the summons because the family name of one was misspelled and the other had yet to receive it, but added that the judge had no grounds on which to call the men for questioning.
“We sent out officials to observe the protesting activities of the people,” he said.
“Our goal was to help prevent violence from happening. I can tell you that if our activists were not present out there, the two bulldozers would have been destroyed. So, I question why the company or the court is accusing us of such [a crime].”
When contacted by RFA, Chien Sros said he had no comment on the summons, which was also issued to 10 members of the local community who took part in the 2014 protest.
Tep Tem, a representative of ethnic minority villagers in Preah Vihear, told RFA that hundreds of villagers plan to gather at the provincial court on Wednesday to show their support for residents and the PKH staffers.
She noted that while villagers have filed complaints to various ministries over several years concerning the land dispute, they have yet to receive any resolution, while whenever Hengfu has filed a complaint against the villagers, court authorities “take speedy action.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum and Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.