About 3,000 Cambodians, many of them victims of land grabs, marched to parliament and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s residence on Monday in a bid to highlight the plight of the landless on World Habitat Day.
Villagers who were evicted from their land to make for “development projects,” as well as activists and monks, from eight provinces joined the march to mark the annual event, which this year seeks to raise awareness of the living conditions of slum dwellers.
Wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Voices of the Urban Poor,” the protesters stood outside the National Assembly, or parliament, and shouted demands to “end forced eviction” and for the government to “allow villagers to implement development projects instead of companies.”
They sought to deliver to lawmakers a petition listing their demands, as well as the details of individual cases of ongoing land disputes around the country.
According to local human rights group Licadho, at least a half million Cambodians have been evicted, or threatened with eviction, since 2000.
Chhim Sokheng, from northern Cambodia’s Preah Vihear province, told RFA’s Khmer Service that she had joined Monday’s petition of the National Assembly because her home had been destroyed and her land confiscated by local authorities as part of a development project.
“I spent all of my life earning enough to have a house,” she said.
“I am 57 years old. But now the house has been destroyed.”
She called on lawmakers to resolve her land dispute because Hun Sen had asked the nation’s villagers to send their petitions to the government.
After the crowd had waited outside of the National Assembly for about an hour, lawmakers from Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and Sam Rainsy’s opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) met with them and accepted their petition.
CPP lawmaker Lork Kheng, who is a member of the National Assembly’s Commission on Human Rights, vowed to tackle the issue of forced evictions in Cambodia.
“If the villagers are suffering, the lawmakers suffer even more,” she told the petitioners.
“We will examine the issues according to the law.”
After delivering petitions to the National Assembly, the activists marched to Hun Sen’s home, where they were met by several thousand military police and security guards who had been deployed to prevent them from entering the property.
Staff members from Hun Sen’s cabinet accepted petitions from the crowd and the protest ended peacefully.
Land disputes are a bitter problem for Cambodia, where rural villagers and urban dwellers alike have been mired in conflicts that the U.N.’s special rapporteur for human rights to Cambodia has warned could threaten the country’s stability.
The country’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.
In September, Surya P. Subedi, the U.N.’s special envoy on Cambodian human rights, noted that several ongoing human rights problems still remain unresolved in the country, including the plight of those asked to leave their land to make way for development projects.
Reported by Khe Sonorng for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.