Sunday, October 28, 2012

Abuses colour Cambodia's fight for land

Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Nearly three years ago, a few hundred small-scale cassava farmers migrated from a district on Cambodia's eastern border to Kratie, a neighbouring province, where they heard there was farmland available in a village called Broma.

The move was not unusual in this predominantly rural country, where land tenure is shaky and poor farmers often uproot themselves for a chance at acquiring land.

"Villagers went there expecting to make their living from farming. They just wanted to survive," explained Bun Sothea, 22, one of the migrants.

But what supposedly happened next was extraordinary. According to the Cambodian government, the villagers allegedly banded together into a separatist movement and decided to "secede" from the Southeast Asian nation.

This so-called secession culminated in a violent battle between villagers and security forces, in which soldiers shot and killed a 14-year-old girl who had been hiding underneath her house.

After the Khmer Rouge abolished private property and instituted forced communal farming, the country - which never had a strong tradition of land ownership in the first place - was left in economic shambles.

Six months later, a total of 14 people have now been prosecuted and convicted for spearheading the so-called Broma separatist movement, including Mam Sonando, an elderly French-Cambodian who owns one of the few independent radio stations here. He was sentenced earlier this month to 20 years in prison.

But rights groups, internationals observers, and the villagers themselves say that the "secessionist plot" is a convenient fiction manufactured by the Cambodian government to justify the death of the girl, Heng Chantha, during a forced eviction.

'No evidence'

The farmland where the villagers had settled was on the edge of a 15,000-hectare plantation that the government had granted to an agroindustrial firm.

The company allegedly attempted to evict them starting in late 2011 so that it could plant rubber saplings. When villagers resisted, hundreds of police and soldiers sealed off the village and called in a helicopter for backup before storming in-and shooting Chantha in the process.

Both rights workers and villagers insist that arrested radio presenter Sonando did not even have a connection to the events in Broma, other than broadcasting stories about them on his radio station.

"This entire court case was just for hiding the death of the girl during the combat against villagers," says Am Sam Ath, the technical supervisor for Licadho, a human rights group that campaigns against land grabs and forced evictions. "There is no actual evidence proving that there was an insurrection."

Sam Ath, who was blocked from approaching the village on the day of the battle but was able to observe from a distance, said that 1,000 soldiers, police and military police officers had surrounded Broma in all directions. "They tied red cloths to their heads like they were about to go to war."

Land tenure

Although most outsiders still associate this Southeast Asian country with land mines, civil war, and the depredations of the Khmer Rouge regime, the biggest issue facing many Cambodians is one that gets little traction in the international media: land tenure.

After the Khmer Rouge abolished private property and instituted forced communal farming, the country - which never had a strong tradition of land ownership in the first place - was left in an economic shambles.

Although the ultra-Maoist regime was ousted in 1979, an additional decade of Vietnamese-backed Communist rule meant that private property rights were not re-established until the early 1990s.

Since then, despite a few high-profile land titling drives and the creation of the Land Law in 2001, many Cambodians still do not have titles to their homes or farmland, even if they have lived there for decades. More