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State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2015 - Cambodia

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2 July 2015
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2015 - Cambodia, 2 July 2015, available at: [accessed 24 May 2023]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

The year 2014 saw the continuation of long drawn-out trials against top Khmer Rouge leaders at the UN-backed Extraordinary Chamber in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). Marred by reports of corruption and politicized proceedings, the rulings have come slowly. On 31 July, the second trial that is part of Case 002 began against Nuon Chea, known as 'Brother Number Two', and former head of state Khieu Samphan, charged with genocide and crimes against humanity for the mass execution of 20,000 ethnic Vietnamese and between 100,000 and 500,000 Cham Muslims, who were systematically targeted for murder, forced marriages and rape during the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-9). As the trial proceeded, defence lawyers boycotted it and demanded that the judges be disqualified, a motion that was overruled: Nuon Chea's defence team returned to court, but Khieu Samphan instructed his lawyers to continue their boycott. By the end of the year the judges claimed they had no choice but to adjourn the case until 2015. In regard to the first case that formed part of this second trial, a ruling was handed down in August sentencing both men to life in prison for their role in the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh and other urban areas.

Deeply entrenched discrimination against Vietnamese in Cambodia, both Vietnamese nationals and ethnic Vietnamese long resident in the country, continued in 2014. In Phnom Penh, opposition party and garment factory protests early in the year helped ignite anti-Vietnamese sentiment, a traditional tactic of opposition groups and political parties in Cambodia. One Vietnamese-owned coffee shop was destroyed in the protests. In February, a Vietnamese man was beaten to death in February by a mob in Phnom Penh after he crashed his motorcycle into the back of a car. Racist slurs were reportedly shouted at the victim before he was killed. Anti-Vietnamese protests continued, reignited in June and July when a spokesperson from the Vietnamese embassy refuted that parts of southern Vietnam, also known as Kampuchea Krom, was under Cambodian control until it was acceded to Vietnam by the French in 1949. The spokesperson was replaced in September, but in October monks led protests and threatened to burn the Vietnamese embassy.

Amid this atmosphere, the Interior Ministry announced that it will conduct a census of foreigners living in the country. Since then, reports of arrests and raids on businesses with suspected Vietnamese workers have increased, and by the end of October 399 Vietnamese nationals had been arrested and over 160 deported. The census was distressing for ethnic Vietnamese, as many lack identification papers, rendering them stateless and vulnerable to a host of human rights abuses.

Indigenous people continued their struggle for ancestral land rights, as large swathes of their territory continue to be seized and exploited for commercial agriculture and energy projects. The UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Flavia Pansieri, who arrived in Cambodia on an official visit at the end of April, noted that more effort must be made to issue communal land titles to protect these communities from eviction. For example, a group of around 5,000 mostly indigenous people face resettlement to accommodate the development of the north-eastern Lower Sesan dam project. Construction on the Chinese and Vietnamese-backed dam was set to begin in January 2015. In October, 18 civil society organizations released a statement noting that the current impact assessment underestimates the 'extensive and severe' potential damage, including to fish stocks and livelihoods, with no consultation or offer of compensation yet made to affected communities.

An indigenous Chong community of about 600 families continued to resist the efforts of Chinese Sino-hydro to build a dam on their ancestral territory in Aveng Valley, one of the last remaining tracts of primeval forest in Southeast Asia, situated in the Cardamoms Protected Forest. While the project has been passed between financial backers, with reports that the proposed dam is not even feasible, the community claims it has not been consulted throughout the process. Villagers worry about the real intentions for the land as in February the Cambodian minister for mines approved a six-month exploration licence in the area. The following month, over 150 villagers blocked company staff from attempting to conduct assessments of the area.

In July, local human rights organization Adhoc reported that over 100 'ethnic minority activists' protecting community forests had been detained, jailed, intimidated and attacked in the first half of the year. In January, protests by Kuoy indigenous villagers in Preah Vihear province against Chinese plantation firms resulted in several arrests, including staff from the NGO Community Legal Education Centre, and forced others into hiding. On 9 August, a march for the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples by 700 Bunong was blocked by police.

In May the Cambodian government issued a new directive on economic land concessions (ELCs), calling for improved protections of community forests and burial sites. While the directive was met with scepticism by indigenous rights activists, measures such as these led the World Bank to reinitiate loans to the country later in the year, which it had officially frozen in 2011 due to the Boeung Kak Lake evictions. In November, the Phnom Penh Post reported that two preliminary proposals had been approved by the World Bank in Kampong Thom, despite the potential threat of indigenous communities being evicted. Complaints against projects funded by the World Bank had continued throughout 2014: in February, the World Bank had agreed to investigate a complaint filed by 17 indigenous groups regarding its being implicated in deforestation and land grabs. By May, the Vietnamese rubber company Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL), implicated in the case, had suspended parts of its operations amid investigations by the Bank.

While many evictions in Cambodia relate to areas with large amounts of natural resources, often in isolated rural locations, land rights violations are also commonplace in Cambodia's urban areas. Though only a fifth of the population currently reside in towns and cities, urban growth is rapid and continues to be shaped by the legacy of the Khmer Rouge era. Though major centres such as Phnom Penh were largely emptied under communist rule, they were gradually repopulated in the chaotic years following the fall of the regime. Lost land records and vacant makeshift housing shaped Phnom Penh's expansion, allowing residents to set up where they chose but also laying the foundation, in recent years, for land grabbing and displacement. In this context, minorities, indigenous peoples and other vulnerable groups have been especially vulnerable to displacement due to existing patterns of discrimination against them.

While most of Cambodia's Cham Muslims and indigenous peoples still reside in rural areas, they also comprise significant urban communities and face a regular threat of eviction. For instance, Phnom Penh's most publicized case of land grabbing involved eviction of residents around Boeung Kak Lake, following the government's reclassification and leasing of the area on a 99-year commercial contract to private developers. Among the thousands of people evicted were entire Muslim Cham neighbourhoods, with families either offered minimal cash compensation or given homes in a relocation zone far outside the city, with little access to services or ability to make a living. As they were relocated away from Al-Serkal mosque, which had served as the community's anchor for gatherings and religious services, their collective sense of community was also undermined. Following its demolition, the mosque was replaced with the help of a large donation from the United Arab Emirates, yet the community itself no longer resides in the area.

The ethnic Vietnamese population, whose ancestors have lived in the country for generations, are largely urban and occupy low-income settlements in the capital. Their lives are insecure as a result of being barred from formal citizenship, leaving them with limited access to education, health care and other benefits normally associated with cities. Their lack of identity papers also prevents them from purchasing land or housing, and as a result many live in waterways and other marginal areas where they face fewer restrictions on residency, including Svay Pak district on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Without viable alternatives, the sex industry helps support these families, as ethnic Vietnamese women are over-represented in it. In one study of urban slums in Phnom Penh from 2006, nearly half of Vietnamese families surveyed reportedly sold a girl child for sex, often a one-time sale of an underaged girl's virginity. The study also noted that being a minority Vietnamese in Cambodia is itself a contributing factor to entry into the sex trade, given the structural discrimination that shapes their lives.

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