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State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2011 - Cambodia

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 6 July 2011
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2011 - Cambodia, 6 July 2011, 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.

Evictions and land-grabbing continued to dominate headlines in Cambodia during 2010. Rights workers say the loss of land is one of the most pressing issues in the country, trapping the nation's marginalized in a cycle of poverty. This has particularly affected many of the country's indigenous communities, whose communal land ownership traditions have been at odds with a government push toward land privatization. The majority of the country's population lacks basic land titles, a legacy of the Khmer Rouge regime.

The government has instituted a policy of granting 'economic land concessions', ostensibly part of a bid to stimulate development. Officially, authorities have distributed more than 950,000 hectares of land to 85 companies. However, as a World Bank report released in September 2010 noted, the government has failed to update its statistics since 2006. The Phnom Penh Post newspaper quoted a forestry official in September as saying that land concessions totalled more than 1.3 million hectares. Critics say such concessions continue to spark disputes between companies and affected villagers, leading to sometimes-violent evictions.

In its State of Human Rights country report for 2010, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) noted that 133,000 people in Phnom Penh alone have been evicted since 1990. The report stated that cases of land-grabbing have reached 'epidemic dimensions, with a clear pattern of rich and powerful individuals or private companies depriving the poor and marginalized of the land they inhabit or farm'. A public opinion survey conducted in July and August by the International Republican Institute (IRI), found that 7 per cent of respondents who owned farmland reported that someone had 'attempted to take some or all of' their land in the previous three years; 5 per cent said they eventually lost the territory in question. (See Box: 'Land rush threatens indigenous communities in South East Asia'.)

Pung Chhiv Kek, president of local rights group Licadho, said women often find themselves heading their families in cases of urban evictions; whereas women take their children to resettlement sites on the edge of Phnom Penh, men remain in town to find work. 'Families are split; the man finds a new partner, while the situation of his wife and children becomes catastrophic,' she said in an interview. Minorities and indigenous people have often been particularly at risk. People from these communities, 'may not understand legal problems and are generally poor with no political connections, which makes them more vulnerable'.

The highest-profile case in 2010 continued to be the secretive real estate project around Phnom Penh's Boeung Kak Lake, which is being developed by a company linked to a ruling party senator and rumoured to be funded by Chinese backers. Roughly 4,000 residents, including a community of Cham Muslims, have been denied land titles and told they must move to make way for a sprawling 133-hectare complex of office towers and apartment blocks. Tensions simmered toward the end of the year after dozens of homes were buried under sludge and sand meant to fill in the lake. The resulting protests have at times turned violent.

Though land evictions affect the general population, indigenous peoples face particular challenges, as their ancestral lands are often located in areas rich in natural resources. In north-eastern Ratanakkiri province, for example, the majority of the population is comprised of indigenous communities. Various groups have continued to complain they have lost land due to the government's controversial land concession policy.

Members of one of Cambodia's minority groups, the Khmer Krom, continued to experience difficulties in 2010. They are the same ethnicity as Cambodia's Khmer majority, but hail from what is now southern Vietnam. Rights groups say they are a persecuted minority in Vietnam, yet not entirely accepted in Cambodia either. Their situation was highlighted in the past year after a group of Khmer Krom entered Cambodia in late 2009 after being deported from Thailand. Though authorities acknowledged the group had full rights to live in Cambodia, they nonetheless refused throughout 2010 to provide them with basic identification cards necessary to obtain employment, or access education or health care in the country. Thach N Thach, president of the US-based advocacy group Khmer Kampuchea-Krom Federation, said, 'Khmer Krom arriving in Cambodia from Vietnam live in legal limbo for significant stretches of time as they are neither treated as citizens nor as refugees.'

In July, the United Nations (UN) backed war crimes tribunal prosecuting the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge period handed down its first verdict against the regime's chief jailer. Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for his role as head of the notorious torture centre S-21. However, some Cambodians reacted with disbelief after the court reduced his sentence by 16 years for time already served and illegal detention.

In September, the tribunal officially indicted four former leaders of the regime. Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith and Khieu Samphan would be the first and only senior Khmer Rouge leaders to answer for the regime's rule. Their trials are expected to start some time in 2011. Controversy arose though when the co-investigating judges in the case confirmed that the four senior leaders would face genocide charges in connection with the Khmer Rouge's treatment of ethnic Vietnamese as well as Cham Muslims, but not the Khmer Krom.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon staged an official visit to Cambodia in late October. Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has frequently lashed out at international officials who criticize the government, subsequently threatened to shut down the Phnom Penh Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and accused its country representative of siding with the main political opposition party.

In December, the government announced it would close a UN-run centre which was home to 76 Montagnard asylum-seekers, including 62 who had already been granted refugee status. Rights groups raised concerns that the group, part of a largely Christian minority from Vietnam's Central Highlands, might be deported back to their homeland, where they would face repression because of their ethnicity and the fact that many Montagnards sided with the US during the Vietnam War. Cambodian authorities later set a mid-February 2011 deadline for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to resolve their cases. Otherwise, the group would face deportation. Critics drew a parallel between the Montagnard situation and the late 2009 deportation of 20 Uighurs back to China. That controversial move came days before China and Cambodia signed aid agreements totalling US $1.2 billion. Similarly, as noted by the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, news that the government planned to shut the Montagnard facility came one month after a state visit from a senior Vietnamese delegation.

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