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Saturday, July 26, 2008

In Cambodia, Land Seizures Push Thousands of the Poor Into Homelessness


ANDONG, Cambodia — When the monsoon rain pours through Mao Sein’s torn thatch roof, she pulls a straw sleeping mat over herself and her three small children and waits until it stops.

She and her children sit on a low table as floodwater rises, bringing with it the sewage that runs along the mud paths outside their shack.

Ms. Mao Sein, 34, was resettled by the government here in an empty field two years ago, when the police raided the squatters’ colony where she lived in Phnom Penh, the capital, 12 miles away.

She is a widow and a scavenger. The area where she lives has no clean water or electricity, no paved roads or permanent buildings. But there is land to live on, and that has drawn scores of new homeless families to settle here, squatting among the squatters.

With its shacks and its sewage, Andong looks very much like the refugee camps that were home to those who were forced from their homes by the brutal Communist Khmer Rouge three decades ago.

Like tens of thousands of people around the country, those living here are victims of what experts say has become the most serious human rights abuse in the country: land seizures that lead to evictions and homelessness.

“Expropriation of the land of Cambodia’s poor is reaching a disastrous level,” Basil Fernando, executive director of the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong, a private monitoring group, said in December. “The courts are politicized and corrupt, and impunity for human rights violators remains the norm.”

With the economy on the rise, land is being seized for logging, agriculture, mining, tourism and fisheries, and in Phnom Penh, soaring land prices have touched off what one official called a frenzy of land grabs by the rich and powerful. The seizures can be violent, including late-night raids by the police and military. Sometimes, shanty neighborhoods burn down, apparently victims of arson.

“They came at 2 a.m.,” said Ku Srey, 37, who was evicted with Ms. Mao Sein and most of their neighbors in June 2006.

“They were vicious,” Ms. Ku Srey said of the police and soldiers who evicted her.

“They had electric batons” — and she imitated the sound made by the devices: “chk-chk-chk-chk.” She said, “They pushed us into trucks, they threw all our stuff into trucks and they brought us here.”

In a report in February, Amnesty International estimated that 150,000 people around the country were now at risk of forcible eviction as a result of land disputes, land seizures and new development projects.

These include 4,000 families who live around a lake in the center of Phnom Penh, Boeung Kak Lake, which is the city’s main catchment for monsoon rains and is being filled in for upscale development.

“If these communities are forced to move, it would be the most large-scale displacement of Cambodians since the times of the Khmer Rouge,” said Brittis Edman, a researcher with Amnesty International, which is based in London.

That, in a way, would bring history full circle.

Like other ailments of society — political and social violence, poverty and a culture of impunity for those with power — the land issues have roots in Cambodia’s tormented past of slaughter, civil war and social disruptions.

The brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge, during which 1.7 million people are estimated to have died, began in 1975 with an evacuation of Phnom Penh, forcing millions of people into the countryside and emptying the city. It ended in 1979 when the Khmer Rouge was driven from power by a Vietnamese invasion, sending hundreds of thousands of refugees into Thailand.

Many of the refugees returned in the 1990s, joining a rootless population displaced by the Khmer Rouge and the decade of civil war that followed in the 1980s. Many ended their journeys in Phnom Penh, creating huge colonies of squatters.

Now, many of these people are being forced to move again, from Phnom Penh and from around the country, victims of the latest scourge of the poor: national prosperity.

Whichever way the winds of history blow, some people here say, life only gets worse for the poor. If it is not “pakdivat,” revolution, that is buffeting the poor, they say, it is “akdivat,” development.

The Cambodian economy has at last started to grow, at an estimated 9 percent last year. And Phnom Penh is starting to transform itself with modern buildings, modest malls and plans for skyscrapers. It is one of the last Asian capitals to begin to pave over its past.

From 1993 to 1999, Amnesty International said in its report in February, the government granted commercial development rights for about one-third of the country’s most productive land for commercial development to private companies.

In Phnom Penh from 1998 through 2003, the city government forced 11,000 families from their homes, the World Bank said in a statement quoted by Amnesty International.

Since then, the human rights group said, evictions have reportedly displaced at least 30,000 more families.

“One thing that is important to note is that the government is not only failing to protect the population, but we are also seeing that it is complicit in many of the forced evictions,” Ms. Edman, of Amnesty International, said.

The government responded to the group’s report through a statement issued by its embassy in London.

“Just to point out that Cambodia is not Zimbabwe,” the statement read. “Your researcher should also spend more time to examine cases of land and housing rights violations in this country, if she dares.”

Here in Andong, the people have adapted as best they can.

Little by little, they have made their dwellings home, some of them decorating their shacks with small flower pots. A few have gathered enough money to buy concrete and bricks to pave their floors and reinforce their walls.

But this home, like the ones they have known in the past, may only be temporary. The outskirts of Phnom Penh are only a few miles away. As the city continues to expand, aid workers say, the people here will probably be forced to move again.

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Observers: Cambodia's Pre-Election Mostly Peaceful

By Rory Byrne, Phnom Penh

Foreign observers keeping a close eye on Cambodia's upcoming general elections have reported a more peaceful pre-election period than for previous campaigns. However, rights groups and opposition parties accuse the government of trying to steal the elections through threats and cheating, accusations the government denies. Rory Byrne has this report for VOA from Phnom Penh.

This is Cambodia's fourth general election since democracy was reintroduced by a United Nations mandate in 1991.

Most observers expect the ruling Cambodian People's Party led by Prime Minister Hun Sen to sweep to an easy victory.

In the past, two-thirds of parliamentarians were needed to form a government. But a recent change in Cambodia's election law means that a simple majority of 50 percent plus one are now all that is needed.

That means that for the first time, the ruling CPP is likely to be able to govern without the support of smaller parties.

While the run-up to polling day has been more peaceful than in previous elections, it has been marked by a spate of politically motivated killings and other alleged abuses, such as vote-buying and intimidation.

Kek Galabru, head of the local human rights group Lichadho, says that ruling party activists are threatening voters.

"We continue to see intimidation everywhere, everywhere," said Galabru. "Like they say: we need your ID to be able to...I don't know what to do, so people are scared. Why they want my ID? Sometimes they come [and say]: if you join us you will have a good future. If you don't: be careful - look at the land-grabbing etc."

Parliament member Son Chhay is a spokesman for the main opposition Sam Rainsy Party. He accuses the ruling Cambodian People's Party of trying to steal the election.

"If you have a free and fair election without vote-buying, without intimidation, without cheating, I doubt that the CPP would be able to get more than 30 percent of the vote," said Chhay. "So it's quite a big problem here. We're never going to be able to have a free and fair election. You know, you can compare Cambodia with Zimbabwe, if not worse than that."

The government denies that widespread electoral abuses have occurred, pointing to the reduced number of politically-motivated killings reported during the pre-election period. Ke Bun Khieng is the Campaign Deputy Director for the ruling Cambodian People's Party.

Khieng says he believes the campaign to choose party candidates for the fourth term in parliament went smoothly. He says incidents of politically-motivated violence were very low and that electoral monitors have reported big improvements since the last election.

While International monitors in Cambodia have reported an improved election environment this time around, they point to what they call "critical problems" in Cambodia, such as the governments monopoly on TV broadcasting.

Tom Andrews is a spokesman for the National Democratic Institute which just released a report on the pre-election period.

"Cambodia has made some improvements - I think you have to recognize that," he said. "I was here in 1995 and again for the elections in 1998 - there are clear improvements, That said, are voters in Cambodia getting a clear opportunity to hear all sides in the election, no. Is the ruling party using the apparatus of power vis-a-vis the government to maximize it's advantage - yes."

With one day to go before voting begins, active campaigning has now come to an end.

The government has introduced a 24-hour alcohol ban to coincide with voting which begins early Sunday morning.

First results are not expected for a few days.
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Tej Bunnag appointed as new Foreign Minister

A retired career diplomat was appointed foreign minister Saturday in time to lead fresh talks with Cambodia over a bitter border dispute.

Tej Bunnag is widely considered a "professional choice" following the resignation of his successor Noppadon Pattama earlier this month, according to local reports.

Noppadon, the former lawyer for controversial former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, became tripped up by appearing to give ground to Cambodia in exchange, it is rumoured, favours for his old boss.

The countries are holding urgent talks Monday in Siem Reap in a bid to defuse a row over joint claims to land adjoining an ancient Hindu temple on their border that threatens to escalate out of control.

Opposition activists have used the temple dispute as a stick beat the government with in a country where nationalist claims lie near the surface of political life. Cambodian reaction has been equally stubborn as a general election nears.

Tej Bunnag, 65, educated at Malvern College and Cambridge University in Britain, has served as ambassador to China, France, the United Nations and the United States.

Preah Vihear, an 11th-century Hindu temple built on a 525-metre- high cliff on the Dongrak mountain range that defines the Thai- Cambodian border, has been the cause of a border conflict between Thailand and Cambodia for decades.

In 1962, the two countries agreed to settle joint claims to the temple at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Cambodia won, but the court stopped short of defining the border in the area.

Thailand claims that a 4.6-square-kilometre plot of land adjoining the temple is still disputed.

The ancient spat got a fresh start earlier this month when UNESCO agreed to list Preah Vihear as a World Heritage Site. The inscription excluded the 4.6 square kilometres of disputed territory, and Thailand protested the listing.

Noppadon, who first backed the Cambodian proposal and then reversed his position, was forced to resign after failing to block the listing of Preah Vihear.

The spat escalated from a diplomatic row to a potential military conflict last week, when three Thais were detained for entering the disputed temple territory.

Although the threesome were quickly released, troops were called in from both sides to protect their border.

While Cambodia first appealed to the Association of South-East Asian Nations and then the UN Security Council to get involved in the border standoff, both bodies have urged the two countries to settle the matter bilaterally.

A bilateral meeting Monday between Cambodian Defence Minister Teah Banh and General Boonsrang Niempradit, supreme commander of the Thai Army, in Sa Kaeo province, Thailand, 270 kilometres east of Bangkok, failed to find a quick fix to the joint claims on the temple's surrounding area.

The temple sits on the border between Si Sa Khet and Phrea Vihear provinces in Thailand and Cambodia, respectively, and is about 400 kilometres north-east of Bangkok.

The border spat has come at a sensitive time politically for both Cambodia and Thailand. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen faces a parliamentary election Sunday, and Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej is under mounting pressure to resign, in part over his government's alleged mishandling of the Preah Vihear affair.

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Thai king endorses new foreign minister

BANGKOK - THAILAND King Bhumibol Adulyadej on Saturday endorsed Tej Bunnag as the country's new foreign minister, a royal statement said.

Mr Tej's appointment comes after his predecessor, Mr Noppadon Pattama, was forced to resign on July 10 for signing an agreement with neighbouring Cambodia later ruled unconstitutional.

'The king has endorsed the appointment of Tej Bunnag as foreign minister,' the royal command stated.

British-educated Tej, 64, is a career diplomat and has been working as an royal advisor since he retired in 2004.

His first crucial task will be to represent Thailand in peace talks with Cambodia in Siem Reap on Monday, in a bid to end a tense stand off by thousands of troops on the border.

The territorial dispute centres on a section of land surrounding the 11th century Preah Vihear temple.

Former foreign minister Noppadon ran into trouble with Thai nationalists when he signed a joint communique endorsing Cambodia's application to have the temple listed as a World heritage site.
That controversy eventually led to the current deployment of soldiers stationed there.

Mr Tej joined the Thai foreign ministry as second secretary at the department of information in 1969 after gaining a doctorate from Oxford University. He also has a Master's degree from Cambridge University.

Mr Tej took his first ambassadorial role in 1986 at the Thai embassy in China and in 1990 was named ambassador to the United Nations office in Geneva.

In 1996 he served as ambassador to France until he was named ambassador to the United States in 2000.

He worked there for only one year before returning to the foreign ministry in 2001. -- AFP

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Tej tipped to be new foreign minister

Former permanent secretary for foreign affairs Tej Bunnag has been nominated to be the new foreign minister with his first mission to end the border row with Cambodia, sources said yesterday.

Mr Tej accepted the invitation on Thursday after being approached by Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, a source said.

The source considered Mr Tej a ''wise choice'' given his credentials in handling diplomatic pressure, and expected tough negotiations with Cambodia centred on the overlapping zone at the border between Kantharalak district in Si Sa Ket and Preah Vihear, the Cambodian province where the 900-year-old temple is located.

The retired career diplomat is not in the country at present.Mr Samak is expected to announce the new foreign minister this weekend.

The selection of the new minister came one day after Mr Samak and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen agreed to a meeting chaired by their foreign ministers in a renewed effort to end the military stand-off in the disputed area.

After Noppadon Pattama resigned from the post early this month for his handling of the temple issue, the name of former ambassador to the United Kingdom, Vikrom Khumpairoj, was mentioned as a strong candidate to succeed the former lawyer to ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

But a source said Mr Vikrom ruled himself out of contention.

Mr Tej's first job is to lead Thai negotiators to the Siem Reap meeting Monday.

Thailand and Cambodia were optimistic about the Monday meeting, which came one week after talks between the two countries led by Supreme Commander Gen Saprang Niempradit and Cambodian Defence Minister Tea Banh to settle on the contested area and withdrawal of their troops collapsed.

''My hardest lesson so far has been the Preah Vihear problem but I think we can defuse it somehow,'' Mr Samak said.

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Thailand and Cambodia vie for the high ground in temple standoff

Ian Mackinnon ins Ban Phumsaral

In the capital cities of Thailand and Cambodia, the military standoff that has seen hundreds of troops line up along their border over the past two weeks is widely believed to threaten war. At the heart of the dispute is a 900-year-old temple to which both sides lay claim - and with a Thai government mired in political crisis and its Cambodian counterpart facing elections tomorrow, neither side has been willing to stand down.

But for opposing soldiers patrolling the border just feet apart from each other, the mood was a little lighter as Cambodian troopers joke about their inferior equipment. Over swapped cigarettes, ageing hand-grenades take particular stick. The pins have a lethal habit of falling out, and the soldiers point mockingly at rubber bands that serve as a fail-safe.

In nearby Ban Phumsaral, on the Thai side of the border however, the two-week build-up is no laughing matter. Frightened villagers just a few miles from the Thai exclusion zone that has sealed off the Preah Vihear temple site gather around radios for the latest word, hopeful that Monday's ministerial meeting will offer hope of an end to the dispute.

Nothing is being left to chance, though. As the still of night envelops the village of 520 families, vigilantes armed with crude rifles handed out by district authorities begin their first patrols of dusty roads flanked by rice paddies.

Earlier they were informed of the Thai army's emergency plans to evacuate to another village 10 miles away, along with the safest route to take if the artillery and tanks newly dug in on both sides of the disputed border open up.

"This whole thing is a big political game," said a 46-year-old former soldier who now runs a meat stall. "All we can do is prepare ourselves. When the first shell lands I'll put wife and three children in the car and drive. Then I'll come back to mind my business."

Both sides hope it will not come to that. The Cambodian prime minister, Hun Sen, and his Thai counterpart, Samak Sundaravej, agreed that their foreign ministers should meet in Siem Reap - home of the fabled Angor Wat temple complex - to try again to resolve the escalating dispute.

Hun Sen said Cambodia had asked to the UN security council to postpone any review of the dispute to allow them to work out their differences, as Thailand had requested. This followed Phnom Penh's plea to the UN to intervene, arguing that "Thai behaviour gravely threatens the peace and stability of the region".

Once tomorrow's elections in Cambodia are out of the way, the hope is that some of the heat may go out of the row. The poll served as a catalyst that stoked nationalist sentiments over the long-running Preah Vihear border dispute and fuelled the latest tensions.

The broken pillars and sweeping roofs of the ornately-carved temple, built between the 9th and 11th centuries, are dramatically sited high on a bluff. Originally consecrated as Hindu, it became Buddhist during the Angor dynasty and is a reminder for Cambodians of the last flowering of Khmer greatness, ended by a 15th century Thai invasion.

Cambodia's French colonial masters claimed the temple using a disputed 1907 map that marked the frontier. But when the French left in 1954, Thai troops seized the ruin. They only grudgingly left after the international court of justice in The Hague awarded it to Cambodia in 1962, but they held onto an adjacent 1.8 square mile (4.6 square kilometre) patch of disputed scrub.

The court's ruling has rankled with Thai nationalists since. So when on June 17 the UN granted Preah Vihear "world heritage site" status it once again became a flashpoint.

Vociferous opponents of the Thai government feared it would undermine any claim to the adjacent disputed territory. They claimed the scalp of the foreign minister Noppodol Pattama, who was accused of overstepping the constitution when he supported Cambodia's application without seeking parliamentary approval.

The accusation was that Pattama, the ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's one-time lawyer, had let the bid slip through as a backroom deal related to his former boss's financial and business interests in Cambodia.

Thai demonstrators were arrested after invading the site, which in turn prompted Thai troops to enter the site to secure their freedoml, leading to an escalation that saw opposing soldiers level their weapons at one another.

Both armies are, however, at pains to demonstrate their good relations at all levels. Many of the Thai soldiers hail from the border area and speak the Khmer language of their Cambodian counterparts.

"Many of the Cambodian soldiers were stallholders in the village near the temple before this happened, so the Thai troops know them well," said the Thai army regional deputy commander, Weewalit Jonsumrit. "They speak the same language, so there little chance of a misunderstanding."

The same is true for the villagers of Ban Phumsaral, who resent the anti-government activists who came to stir up trouble for their own cynical ends, leaving emotional turmoil and suspicion in their wake.

"My ancestors were here, my family lives here," said Bonkend Tactong, 45, a villager preparing for night patrol. "The outsiders came with their propaganda and left the gullible paranoid. We're patrolling as a precaution, but more to restore confidence."
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Opposition makes headway in Cambodia

Cambodia's long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen looks set to notch up another election victory tomorrow.

He is expected to take more seats in the national parliament.

Hun Sen is still popular even after 23 years in power. But the main opposition party is making headway.

The Cambodian People's Party (CPP) boasts that it has five million signed up members.

That is impressive when there are only eight million registered voters.

With so much flag waving and patriotic music, electioneering in Cambodia can feel like a big street party, but for many, campaigning is dangerous.

Sam Rainsy is the leader of the main Opposition party that bears his name.

At a campaign stop in Sang Ke District in the western province of Battambang, he finds himself literally unable to go on.

"They are deliberately blocking our way," he said.

Mr Rainsy says the CPP are trying to block change in the country it has ruled for 23 years.

"They don't want us to spread our message," he said.

"They are afraid of our message. They don't want the Cambodian people to hear the message of change from the Opposition."

Election violence

At least 12 people have been killed in this election campaign, including an Opposition journalist.

The president of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), Thun Saray, worries about a general rise in lawlessness at this time, because government officials, the military, and police are engaged in campaigning.

"We observed in the recent week there were also the increasing robbery, the ordinary crime, killings, something that is happened," he said.

"We worry about people who be frightened by this atmosphere."

While his supporters have been out in force, Prime Minister Hun Sen has done little in the way of campaigning.

His Government is being criticised for the huge spike in fuel and food prices and cannot shake corruption allegations relating to misuse and abuse of public land and forests.

But foreign investment is strong and the Government is benefiting from a wave of nationalistic pride because of its tough stance in the Preah Vihear Temple dispute with Thailand.

The ABC was denied an interview with the Prime Minister, but Cheam Yeap from the Central Committee of the Cambodian People's Party did speak to us.

Mr Cheam says that Sam Rainsy's push for change is a trick on the people.

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