More than 200 people were arrested while defending their land in 2012 – a year human rights groups described yesterday as Cambodia’s “worst” for land disputes.
Of the 201 people arrested – a figure that more than doubled the 2011 total – 29 were imprisoned, mostly on charges of destroying property, faking documents and encroaching on private property, said Chan Soveth, deputy head of the land rights department at rights group Adhoc.
“Two thousand twelve was the worst year for residents being arrested as they tried to save their homes,” he said, adding that disputes themselves had also soared.
The comments came as heads of the NGO Forum on Cambodia, the Housing Rights Task Force, Adhoc and the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee called on the government to take measures to end forced evictions and resolve land disputes.
A joint statement released by the organisations said more than 700,000 people had been affected by land grabbing and forced displacement since 2000, including 51,000 in 2011.
“In Phnom Penh, at least 145,000, or approximately 10 per cent of the city’s population have been evicted since 2000,” the statement said, adding that 40,000 had been under immediate threat of eviction at the end of 2011.
Sia Phearum, secretariat director of the Housing Rights Task Force, said forced evictions had decreased in 2012, but the fact 611 families had fled from disputes last year suggested conflict hadn’t.
“We’ve noticed that actual evictions decrease in the lead-up to elections,” he said.
Recommendations put forward by those involved in yesterday’s press conference included that the government end forced evictions, demarcate state and private land, release imprisoned Boeung Kak lake mother Yorm Bopha, make the economic land concession (ELC) review process transparent and prioritise systematic land registration for poor communities.
Soveth said more than 1,000 people involved in disputes had been arrested since 2007, many as a result of the government cracking down on protests against ELCs.
“Often the court sentences these people without properly investigating.”
Chhith Sam Ath, executive director of NGO Forum, said it was essential that disputes were resolved and villagers’ rights protected.
“Currently, landlessness is estimated at between 20 and 25 per cent of the total population.”
Phay Siphan, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said the government was doing a lot to help residents with land issues, including deploying students to demarcate land and issue land titles.
“This is a historic strategy, one that is very important for Cambodia,” he said.