Some 900 activists, informal workers and others gathered in Phnom Penh on Thursday in a public forum that organizers said was intended to send a message to Cambodian and Asean leaders ahead of a regional summit in the capital next week.
Billed as an “Asean Grassroots People’s Assembly” to address human rights violations and political tension, victims of land grabs, environmental activists, farmers and workers from the garment, sex and informal sectors, among others, from 20 provinces gathered in Freedom Park to urge the government to resolve longstanding land disputes and address other rights abuses, an organizer and attendees said.
Forum attendee Chan Yoeut, 53, from Battambang province, said he has been embroiled in a land dispute for nearly 20 years that involved 16 families struggling to secure farmland in Khnach Romeas commune.
“We have been protesting since 2002, but there was no solution from the provincial to the national level. I have sought intervention from all state institutions, but there is still no solution,” said Yoeut, adding that he joined with other land disputants in the capital to express their concerns and seek support from top government leaders.
“We also want to send a message to Asean leaders about our problems, and all embassies in Cambodia, to urge the government to address the issues for people,” he said.
Horn Ravuth, from Siem Reap province’s Run Ta Ek commune, said residents of Tani village had lost their farmland 18 years ago. He said he lost two hectares of farmland after the government set it aside to distribute to people relocated from inside the Angkor Archeological Park.
“We demand that the government, as chair of Asean, should address the issue for us. We want to raise awareness to Asean to help urge the government as people have suffered from land grabbing for years,” Ravuth said.
“I know that Asean is an association formed to contribute to respect for human rights,” he added.
Siem Reap has seen widespread land protests in recent weeks, as people living inside the temple park have been moved to relocation sites outside to preserve the Unesco heritage site, officials have said. Last month, villagers protested outside the Peak Sneng commune hall in Siem Reap’s Angkor Thom district, seeking answers from authorities about demarcation posts planted through their rice paddy without explanation.
Forum organizer Heng Socheat said communities experiencing human rights abuses and land grabbing saw the week before the Asean summit in Phnom Penh as an opportunity to have their voices heard.
“Cambodia is a member of Asean and has relationships in trade and investment, and we want to show their issues to Asean leaders to be heard,” he said.
Socheat said others attending the assembly included indigenous peoples who were demanding the registration of communal land and the protection of natural resources, especially forests.
“It is an exercise of their rights as citizens to demand solutions,” he said.
Representatives from the Interior Ministry and Phnom Penh City Hall received a petition during the event and said they would deliver it to senior government leaders.
Det Huor, a land disputant from Koh Kong’s Chi Khor Loeu commune, said 197 families who had lost their land more than 10 years ago were still seeking a favorable resolution, while nine community members were facing a defamation and incitement lawsuit related to the land conflict.
“Since losing land, my husband fell sick and I have never received any social protection assistance, and now I have no land to farm and not enough food to eat. We are in debt to the bank,” she said. “We want to send a message to all leaders to help us.”