By Milo Anderson
Northwest Asian Weekly
The white sands of Otres Beach sit two miles south of Sihanoukville, Cambodia. It’s less crowded than the larger beaches closer to downtown. Tourists from Europe, Australia and the United States, along with Cambodians on vacation, come to enjoy the sun and the warm ocean and the small, open-air, thatched-roof bars and restaurants that line the sand. At night, Roman candles and Christmas lights reflect off the black water.
Relaxing in beach chairs facing the ocean, the tourists’ backs are turned to the red dirt road that connects them to downtown Sihanoukville, and the tiny shacks beside the road which house the evicted villagers of Spean Chhes.
On April 20, 2007, 150 soldiers and police armed with machine guns, electric batons and tear gas came to Spean Chhes, burned or demolished all the villagers’ houses, cut down their coconut and jackfruit trees and arrested several who resisted.
Of the 100 families that lived there, 80 remain by the side of the road, within sight of the concrete barrier surrounding the site of their old village and a few hundred feet from the tourists on Otres Beach. They have nowhere else to go.
The evictions in Spean Chhes are one example of a widespread problem in Cambodia. The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) has documented dozens of cases of land grabbing by wealthy, well-connected individuals and companies throughout the country.
Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a long history of violence and famine. In the past two decades it has become a major recipient of international aid money and has developed a tourism and garment industry alongside the traditional subsistence agriculture still practiced in much of the country. Economic development has raised land prices.
Manfred Hornung, a monitoring consultant with LICADHO, said it’s easy to see why Spean Chhes, located next to an attractive tourist destination, was targeted for development. “It’s prime real estate.”
According to Horm Theurn, who cleared land for a farm in Spean Chhes 15 years ago with her family, when the police and soldiers came to demolish the village they said, “It’s your fault because before when we offered you money, you didn’t take it. Now we take the land for free.”
She said she has no idea what will happen to her and the other families. She said they want to return to their land, but they are afraid they will be shot.
Villagers were also worried about their relatives in prison. Fourteen men were charged for fighting the police and soldiers with slingshots, rocks and glass bottles. One man escaped arrest, five were acquitted, one who used a machete was sentenced to four months and the remaining seven men were given the lightest sentences possible.
But when the prosecutor appealed their convictions, the men had to stay in jail awaiting their new trial. After intense lobbying by LICADHO and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the appeals court finally heard the case on April 3, and the men were released a week later.
Hornung said the criminal cases against the villagers were meant to intimidate them and distract them from pursuing a civil case to get their land back, and it’s a pattern he sees in other land disputes. “The government is very successful in keeping people busy getting out of prison,” he said.
According to a 2001 land law, if someone has possessed land uncontested for five or more years before the law was passed, they have the right to claim ownership before a cadastral commission.
However, according to Hornung, no court or commission has ever addressed the issue of land ownership in Spean Chhes. And since residents were not allowed to remove their possessions before their houses were destroyed, they lost documents that may have proved how long they lived there.
“We don’t talk about the rule of law in this office,” Hornung said. “It’s just practicalities.”
The governor of Sihanoukville, Say Hak, who organized the eviction, could not be reached for comment. The information officer for Cambodia’s National Authority for Resolution of Land Disputes, Chum Bun Rong, was unable to say who resolved the question of ownership of the land, or how they reached that conclusion. He also didn’t know what the government plans to do about the villagers living by the road.
The humanitarian organization M’Lop Tapang provides basic medical assistance to the evicted villagers. Setha Thouch, a team leader with M’Lop Tapang, said the children have been hardest hit by the evictions.
During the summer rainy season, Thouch said, the ditches fill with water and many children develop skin diseases. In the dry winter months, cars, trucks and tourists riding in tuk-tuks — small three-wheel taxis — create clouds of red dust that cover everything. Respiratory diseases are common, he said.
Hornung said the unwillingness of Cambodia’s leaders to respect their own laws undercuts the mission of aid agencies.
“They knew how to make a living there,” said Hornung. “Now they are slum dwellers. This is man-made. This is not the poverty in this country.”
Milo Anderson recently graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in journalism. The last course he took was a study-abroad program looking at social work in Cambodia. After the class was finished, he stayed in Cambodia for an additional week and wrote this report. He can be reached at email@example.com.