Around 1,500 protesters marked World Habitat Day on Monday by marching through Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh and calling on the government to put a stop to forced evictions in the Southeast Asian nation.
Evictees, monks, and activists joined the march to the National Assembly, or parliament, carrying cardboard cutouts of houses and shouting slogans, including “Cambodians need housing and land” and “We must have rights to live.”
Outside of the Assembly, protesters also spoke about land tenure insecurity, inadequate housing, and the lack of infrastructure necessary to ensure good living conditions for people living in settlements for the rural and urban poor.
After releasing a model house tied to balloons and delivering petitions to parliament, the protesters tried to proceed to City Hall, the Ministry of the Interior, and the Ministry of Land Management, but were blocked by police and eventually dispersed.
Pao Ngoung, a protester from southwestern Cambodia’s Koh Kong province, told RFA’s Khmer Service she has been landless since becoming the victim of a forced eviction eight years ago, despite seeking intervention from the courts and other state institutions.
“I have made countless complaints and today I hope that when the government receives my petition they will resolve my case,” she said.
Am Sam Ath, senior investigator with local rights group Licadho, slammed police for blocking protesters who he said had hoped to “express their grievances, according to their rights.”
He said that the government was likely to draw further criticism after blocking the march.
“The authorities are restricting the freedoms of expression and association,” he said, calling on the government to do more to end forced evictions in the country.
“In Cambodia, the government uses land development as a pretext to cover up forced evictions. I have observed that many developments don’t benefit the villagers. In reality, these developments severely affect villagers and their rights to have shelter.”
The seizure of land for development—often without due process or fair compensation for displaced residents—has been a major cause of protest in Cambodia and other authoritarian Asian countries, including China and Myanmar.
Rural villagers and urban dwellers alike have been mired in conflicts that the U.N.’s special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia last month warned could threaten the country’s stability.
Last year, the number of people affected by state-involved land conflicts since 2000 grew to more than 500,000, according to Licadho.
Cambodia’s land issues date from the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, which forced large-scale evacuations and relocations, followed by a period of mass confusion over land rights and the formation of squatter communities when the refugees returned in the 1990s after a decade of civil war.
Reported by Prach Chiv for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.