>Human rights, development should be balanced

>By A. Gaffar Peng-Meth, Ph.D

Cambodia under Hun Sen is definitely better than Cambodia under Pol Pot, whose loyalists killed an estimated two million of their countrymen. Premier at age 33, Sen has been credited for Cambodia’s economic growth of more than 10 percent a year since 2000. It’s in vogue to describe Cambodia today as “a lot better” than before.

The Economist.com of London says Sen “looks as strong as ever” following his victory in the July national election, and “looks set to continue comfortably unchallenged for the foreseeable future.”

Foreign officials and diplomats applaud Cambodia’s economic “progress” and “decline” in politically motivated violence.

Last month, in “Giving up freedoms to settle for ‘peace'” in this space, I wrote that economic development and rights and freedom of men are not mutually exclusive. In a free society, they should be in balance.

Cambodia’s physical appearance has changed. “A decade ago, Phnom Penh lacked even a single traffic light,” wrote Business Week. “Today … all over (Phnom Penh), shanty towns and old villas are being sold and razed to make way for high-rise apartments, office buildings, shopping malls, and new villas.”

But the head of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights stated, “You have a GDP increase, but look at the gap between rich and poor. More than 40 percent (of the total population of 14 million) live below the standard income.”

Britain’s The Guardian’s 11-page “Country far Sale” (April 26) reported “Almost half of Cambodia has been sold to foreign speculators in the past 18 months — and hundreds of thousands who fled the Khmer Rouge are homeless again.” It described “foreigners” buying up a series of Cambodia’s islands and public beaches since 2006, and engaged in “outright” purchase of land and real estate.

If lands are bought, residents have to be forcibly removed, all in the name of economic development.

Abhorrent violations of the rights of the Cambodian poor, through forced evictions from homes and land were the catalyst for the “End Land Grabbing in Cambodia” petition in June initiated by the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission.

In August, Amnesty International USA and the Center on Housing Rights and Evictions called on the Cambodian authorities to stop filling Boeung Kak Lake as between 3,000 and 4,000 families may be affected.

In its press release, Amnesty’s Brittis Edman declared, “the filling of the lake should be immediately halted. Otherwise, this may be the beginning of the biggest forced eviction in post-war Cambodia.”

The Sept. 3 “Stop the Illegal Filling of Boeung Kak” petition (www.petitionspot. com/petitions/SaveBoeungKakLake) appears to be picking up momentum. Having signed the AHRC petition to stop land grabbing in Cambodia, I also signed the petition to stop the “illegal filling” of the Boeung Kak Lake.

Today, somebody else’s families are evicted from homes and land. Tomorrow misfortune may hit my relatives and friends.

Amnesty’s press release indicates “development plans for Boeung Kak Lake emerged in 2007.” A 99-year lease agreement between the Municipality of Phnom Penh and “a private developer, Shukaku Ltd,” included the “handing over management of 133 hectares of land, including 90 percent of the lake,” and Shukaku will transform the area into “pleasant, trade, and services places for domestic and international tourists.”

Amnesty cited Cambodia’s “2001 Land Law” that should make Boeung Kak Lake “inalienable state land (so-called state public property), so its ownership cannot be transferred for longer than 15 years.”

AHRC’s Lao Mong Hay’s Sept. 10 “U.N. mandate necessary in Cambodia” in United Press International Asia Online quoted United Nations special representative Professor Yash Ghai’s observation: “State authorities, as well as companies and politically well-connected individuals, show scant respect for the rule of law,” and that Cambodia’s courts and the legal profession “have failed the people of Cambodia woefully.”

Mong Hay also cited Ghai’s observation of Cambodians who risk forced evictions from their homes and land for development or city beautification, as living in “fear of the state, fear of political and economic saboteurs, fear of greedy individuals and corporations, fear of the police and the courts.”

Of course the Sen government wanted Ghai fired, but the U.N. refused; so the government in turn refused to cooperate with Ghai and threatened to close down the U.N. field office.

The problem is, as the Aug. 6 London Economist.com puts it, “Foreign governments moan about (Sen’s) government’s corruption, ineptitude and abuses, but he knows they are itching to spend their aid budgets and they lack the guts to turn their tough words into action. With … China and Vietnam keen to invest in Cambodia, and Western ones like America and France keen to maintain their presence, Mr. Hun Sen can cheerfully play them off against each other, while collecting goodies from all.”

A. Gaffar Peang-Meth, Ph.D., is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years.

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