CAMBODIA: Systematic government attacks on the poor

Throughout June, the authorities in Cambodia systematically used large numbers of police to attack the poor. Five cases included assaults on legally-demonstrating workers and evictions of large numbers of people from their houses to make way for big business. 

On June 6, Keo Chutema, governor of the Municipality of Phnom Penh sent around 700 police offers armed with tear gas, electric batons and some assault rifles to remove hundreds left homeless after their eviction from Sambok Chap village on the Bassac river near the centre of Phnom Penh so that Sour Srun Enterprises can reportedly build a shopping mall there. The police cordoned off the area and allowed no journalists and human rights workers to observe. Three persons were arrested for resisting. The homeless were dumped at a resettlement area with no basic social amenities or means of livelihood on the outskirts of the capital. 

On June 20, Touch Naruth, the police commissioner of Phnom Penh, and Kuoch Chamroeun, governor of Meanchey district, led a mixed police force of 200 men armed with riot shields, truncheons and electric batons, and some with AK-47 rifles, against a demonstration staged by 1500 garment factory workers who were marching towards the National Assembly to request that their company comply with a decision of the Labour Arbitration Council ordering the reinstatement of Heang Ren, a trade union official whom the company had sacked. The police used truncheons and electric batons to beat and shock the workers. Four were seriously injured and needed hospitalisation; 15 others sustained minor injuries. The police also banned journalists from their operation area and attempted in vain to confiscate a camera from one who succeeded in getting through and taking pictures.

On June 27, Say Hak, governor of the Municipality of Sihanoukville, Cambodia’s seaport town and seaside resort, sent a mixed police force of 100 men armed with rifles and electric batons, 80 labourers, three bulldozers and 10 trucks to evict 32 families from the beach at O Cheuteal in Commune IV of the same town. They tore down 70 wooden food stalls and homes belonging to those families and transported away their belongings. The victims resisted in vain.

On June 29, Hok Lundy, director general of the National Police Department, sent around 300 men armed with rifles, electric batons and teargas guns, and equipped with gas masks, together with 30 big trucks to evict 168 families living next to Phnom Penh’s Preah Monivong Hospital at Village 11, Central Market Commune III, Daun Penh district in Phnom Penh. The victims were mostly poor families of low-ranking police officers, military officers, functionaries and ordinary people. On the first day the police demolished 52 houses belonging to police families whom Hok Lundy had forced to vacate the area in exchange for USD 1300 per family and a small plot of land in a resettlement area located 35km away. The resettlement area has no running water, electricity, schools and health centres and it is too far way from places of work. As the eviction continued, dozens of police officers went around coercing the remaining families to thumb print agreements to vacate and accept even less compensation. They had been living in the area since 1988 and some had invested their savings in their houses. They had requested USD 2-5000 to be commensurate with their house and land values and the hardship of relocation. During the eviction, a woman named Roeum Sokha was dragged out of her house. The police choked and kicked her, and in the melee she hit her head on the wall and had to be taken to hospital for treatment. Two other women lost consciousness. The police cordoned off the area and prevented journalists and human rights defenders from approaching. The government now intends to lease the land to the Royal Group Company to build a new hospital. 

On June 30 Em Sok Leang, deputy-governor of Meanchey district, Phnom Penh, led a police force of around 50 men armed with handguns and rifles to evict three families living on land next to the National Radio compound at Damnak Thom village, Stung Meanchey commune, in the same district. Those families have been running small repair shops and living at that place for 20 years. They have been given USD 1500 each to leave, which they find very offensive as the land is worth up to USD 300,000. They were evicted so that Phan Emex, a big land development company, can build townhouses. They resisted by throwing rocks and foul water at the police, causing slight injuries and dirtying some officers. In the confrontation, Nath Saroeun, a soldier from Brigade 70 and bodyguard to the district governor, shot one occupant, Keo Ying, in the chest. Keo Ying was taken to hospital and the eviction was suspended. Nath Saroeun was later arrested.

The Asian Human Rights Commission has also learnt that the Cambodian authorities have kept the police on alert at all times to attack any protest or persons resisting their violent and unconstitutional acts. On June 25 the Free Trade Union, whose members represent 90 per cent of all garment factory workers, called a general strike for July 3 together with the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association to demand higher wages. The strike was called off on June 29, but Pa Socheatvong, deputy governor of Phnom Penh, said in an address to district governors, police chiefs and military police commanders of the municipality, together with 300 members of the pro-government Cambodian Union Federation, that the police should be on alert for possible protests by members of those two unions. He told them to monitor bus depots and shops where trucks and loudspeakers can be hired, and watch the areas near the National Assembly and Wat Phnom Penh Park for any possible demonstrations. He urged them to make plans to crack down on any protest. He accused the leaders of the two unions of working for a political party, which he did not name. However, he was referring to the Sam Rainsy Party, which has fallen out with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party after a short period of rapprochement early this year. On June 29 Prime Minister Hun Sen accused the Sam Rainsy Party of encouraging and helping peasants to pretend to be poor and come to Phnom Penh to seek assistance and protest against land-grabbing. He urged that they not be given any assistance lest they come back to repeat their requests. 

The Cambodian government uses various pretexts to justify its repressive measures. For instance, it has accused evictees of illegally occupying land that belongs to the state or private companies. It fails to point out, however, that many of Cambodia’s current rulers just grabbed other people’s houses and land and made them their own during the transition from collectivisation to private property in the years after 1979, when the Khmer Rouge regime was ousted. Furthermore, there have been a lot of doubts as to the legality of the government’s land concessions to private businesses, which are granted behind closed doors, and the extent to which the authorities have been influenced by commercial interests in giving the concessions. The government has also justified repression on the grounds of economic development, beautification of the capital or social stability. But in so doing it has defied its obligations under the 1991 Paris Peace Accords and the constitution, which demand that it reconstruct and develop the country in compliance with–not defiance of–human rights. 

The Asian Human Rights Commission is deeply concerned by the effects on the poor caused by the increasingly close relationships between the Cambodian ruling elite and big businesses, and demands that deliberate steps be taken to counteract this trend. It urges the UN Secretary General, his Special Representative for human rights in Cambodia, the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Human Rights Council, the governments of all donor countries and international agencies, the governments of all state signatories to the Paris Peace Accords and members of the human rights community to fulfil their human rights commitments and take concerted action to end the violence and repression imposed on the poor of Cambodia for the short-term gains of the rich and powerful. 

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-161-2006
Countries : Cambodia,
Issues : Poverty & adequate standard of living,