A look at Cambodia’s number one human rights issue via the life of one of its prominent defenders
Ly Siev Minh has lived here for as long as she can remember. It may not be perfect, but it’s home.
Her father loves it here, he would fight for her family’s right to be here, no matter what.
Minh lives in Phnom Penh, on a piece of land a company has decided it wants to build on, land it views as more valuable than her family. This means her father has had to fight for her family’s right to be here. He has fought hard, and long, and she is proud to have fought by his side. Guards hired by the company have put snakes in her house, her drinking water has been poisoned, she has been pushed to the ground by the company’s guards, cut by them, and watched her father be beaten by them.
Finally, her father was arrested, and when she searched for him, they arrested her too.
Cambodia is a country of stark contrasts; indescribable beauty sits alongside rampant and blatant human rights abuses at the hands of not only companies, but also the very government responsible for the protection of its people. Prominent among those abuses is the denial of Cambodians’ rights to land and homes, which the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia believes remains ‘the number one’ human rights issue facing the country.
The case outlined above has been monitored and profiled by CCHR’s Land Reform Project, which aims to raise awareness of land rights violations and protect citizens who are being forcibly evicted from their homes. Vann Sopath, coordinator of the project, has spent the last four years advocating for individuals and communities who have had their land and homes taken and destroyed. Sopath’s journey to human rights advocacy began with a story familiar to almost every Cambodian over the age of 40; abuse at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
In 1978 and at the age of 18, Sopath became aware that he was being targeted for execution by the soldiers controlling his village. He had recently watched his father die of starvation. He boarded a vehicle full of people from the region of Svay Rieng, all of whom would eventually be killed, and feared that if he didn’t escape, he would die too. Taking the first opportunity he saw, Sopath said he needed to go into the jungle to be sick, and while the guards were distracted, fled. He ran 20km through thick jungle to the next village, where the chief allowed him to take refuge.
Shortly after, Vietnamese soldiers entered Cambodia and ousted the Khmer Rouge. Instead of joining the army at the insistence of the Vietnamese backed regime that followed, Sophath went on to become a trained nurse in the UN-run refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border. There he witnessed myriad abuses, and first became aware of the concept of human rights and that it was what he wanted to dedicate himself to.
A focus on land rights emerged several years into Sopath’s work for the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights (LICADHO) when the communities he was training on human rights continually complained of land-grabs. Land disputes were on the rise due to increased investment in Cambodian land for crops such as cassava, sugar and rubber. Prior to 2001, land rights were minimal within the legal system, but even with the development of private rights to land with the introduction of the Land Law 2001, Cambodian people continued to have their land handed over to investors by their own government via Economic Land Concessions (“ELCs”).
There is now a government moratorium on new ELCs, but land disputes continue to plague the country. Sopath’s view is that land disputes will continue to increase in 2015 without “effective intervention from the government and local authorities.” A case Sopath documented in Pursat province showed that people’s fear of land-grabs is well-founded, even if they hold titles for their land. In the Pursat case, Sopath observed the villagers present their land title to the local authorities, who promptly stated that they “did not recognize” it.
“I was very afraid but I have never wanted to stop working.” -Vann Sopath on working as a land rights activist
In fighting for local communities and their land, Sopath continues to face personal abuses. On several occasions, private security guards hired by companies involved in disputes have threatened, pushed, and even beaten Sopath in attempts to stop his advocacy. In May 2014, six security guards from the company seeking to evict Ly Siev Minh’s family physically assaulted him, threatening worse if he continued his work on the case. When asked if these incidents ever made him think twice about continuing his work, Sopath stated “I was very afraid but I have never wanted to stop working.”
“As the situation worsens, people [will] work together to protest for change.”
In many ways, Sopath’s own story embodies the Cambodian story. It is one of strength, but also one for suffering. Cambodian’s are increasingly aware of their human rights, and what’s more, they are willing to stand up for them. Unless the Cambodian authorities take meaningful action to deal with land disputes, and prioritize the rights of vulnerable citizens over powerful companies, land conflict cases will continue. Sopath is hopeful though, that “as the situation worsens, people [will] work together to protest for change.”
Nina Calleja, CCHR International Intern, contributed to this blog post.
For further information on the work of the LRP and land rights in Cambodia:
CCHR report 2013- “Cambodia: Land in Conflict, An Overview of the Land Situation”
CCHR roundtable report 2013- “Land Reform Policy Report: Findings from Roundtable Discussion and Policy Platforms”