Human Rights and Peace Campaign Social Politics

Will 2015 be a year of change for Cambodia’s land rights crisis?

(published on analysis and op-ed of the Phnom Penh Post, 30 December 2014)

Boeung Kak Lake activist Nget Khun

Boeung Kak Lake activist Nget Khun, calls to community members from a window at Phnom Penh Municipal Court last month after she was detained by authorities.Vireak Mai


Earlier this month, in Prey Sar prison on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, I sat and talked with Tep Vanny, Song Srey Leap, Kong Chantha and Nget Khun, four inspirational activists from the city’s Boeung Kak lake community. They were jailed in early November after protesting against the now infamous 2007 real estate deal which saw the lake filled with sand and thousands of people forcibly evicted.

They looked pale and tired, but spoke with quiet dignity of their determination to seek justice for the loss of their land. In today’s Cambodia, they are not alone.

Steady economic growth and a large influx of aid since the end of civil war in the early 1990s have brought significant change to the country. According to World Bank estimates, Cambodia achieved the UN Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty by 2009, and Phnom Penh is now dotted with a growing number of sleek new apartment buildings, shopping malls and fashionable coffee shops.

However, as the country’s violent past recedes, Cambodia is in the grip of a volatile new conflict over land and natural resources. Policies pursuing economic liberalisation, export expansion and foreign investment have led to rising prices and an insatiable demand for land, leading to frequent clashes between the interests of local communities and politically connected big business. With large swathes of the country leased for commercial exploitation through economic land concessions, insecurity of tenure due to a widespread lack of formal land titles and weak rule of law have facilitated a wave of land grabs and forced evictions, sometimes accompanied by shocking levels of violence.

The scale of the problem can seem overwhelming, but despite the dangers, brave men and women across Cambodia are standing up to challenge violations of their land rights. Often, they are met with harassment and attacks. Within 36 hours of the arrest of seven Boeung Kak lake community activists on November 10, including those I met with, all had been detained, interviewed by a prosecutor, charged with obstructing traffic, tried, convicted and sentenced to a year in jail and issued a $500 fine, the maximum permitted under the law. A further three women and a monk faced similar treatment the following day, detained while protesting the arrest of their fellow activists and hastily convicted of obstructing public officials.

However, when complaints are lodged against powerful business interests attempting to forcibly acquire land, the justice system is not so nimble. In 2005, a dispute arose between the family of Ly Srea Kheng from Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kork district and a company owned by Khun Sear, a business associate of the head of the Senate President’s Bodyguard Unit. They have endured a campaign of threats and attacks by security guards hired by the company, including having a bag of venomous cobras thrown into their house. Despite several complaints filed before the courts, no action has been taken against the perpetrators. By contrast, following complaints from Khun Sear, police arrested Kheng on the morning of November 18 without showing a warrant or even allowing him time to get properly dressed. His 23-year-old daughter Ly Seav Minh was arrested later the same day. That evening, a company representative contacted Kheng’s son to negotiate, suggesting an abuse of the judicial process to force the family to accept the company’s terms. Kheng was bailed on December 5, but his daughter remains in detention.

Such harsh treatment of vulnerable people embroiled in land disputes does nothing to resolve the underlying problems, and can only exacerbate tensions among affected communities. As the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) has previously documented, one reason for the large number of disputes is a lack of adequate resolution mechanisms. Few people are even aware of those that do exist, which in any case have proved largely ineffective. Despite the many legal protections found in Cambodia’s Constitution, national and international law, illegal land grabs continue.

While institutional and judicial reform is certainly necessary, what is truly lacking is the political will to protect land rights in practice. Hun Sen’s “Heroic Samdech Techo Volunteer Youth” land-titling campaign, aimed at strengthening security of tenure through the provision of formal land titles, met with tentative initial praise, but proved highly problematic in execution and failed to assess disputed land. The government is currently developing a white paper on land policy and a new law on environmental impact assessments, initiatives that to its credit have involved consultations with civil society, but whether their concerns will be addressed remains to be seen.

In the absence of decisive action on the part of the government, local communities and civil society are coming up with innovative strategies to challenge land rights violations. After years of campaigning, activists from Boeung Kak lake welcomed Singaporean firm HLH’s recent decision to withdraw from the development for “commercial reasons”. Elsewhere, in a landmark case of transnational human rights litigation, villagers from Koh Kong have brought claims against UK sugar giant Tate and Lyle in the UK courts with support from the Community Legal Education Center. The villagers say that they were violently evicted from their land by armed military police to make way for sugar plantations, which the company subsequently sourced from.

While these noble efforts are to be lauded, the primary responsibility for dealing with insecurity of tenure and ensuring the peaceful resolution of disputes remains with the government. CCHR is calling for the release of all land activists detained simply for protesting violations of their human rights. In 2014, communities caught up in Cambodia’s land rights crisis stood up with bravery and resolve to demand change. I only hope that in 2015, the government will finally heed their calls.

Chak Sopheap is the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

Clogher Gender Personal

Reflection: Can Women Still Have it All?

An article devotes to celebrate 2013 Women Rights Day and the ongoing Clogher page:

As a woman living in this modern age, I have entitled fundamental rights and even more privilege affirmative actions, which complimentary credit should be handed to the states and other relevant agencies for gender equality and equity, while my female fellows could not enjoy in her traditional age. With figure shown increasing number of women participation in all aspects including political, economic, and social life, comparing to previous decades, we all should applaud this ongoing successful effort.

However, after reading a well-known article by Anne-Marrie Slaughter—a Princeton University professor and the first women to serve as director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department, from 2009 to 2011—who left a position in power, titling “why women still can’t have it all,” which had been released since July 2012, it took me until now to be able to reflect her three half-truths than many women tell about how we can have it all. I shared her view that it is worth to reflect these controversial truths if we do wish for women to have it all and for professional women to be prepared for the stage she would be facing:

Having It All Myth # 1 : “It’s possible if you are just committed enough.”

Slaughter posits that the pressure from “inflexible schedules, unrelenting travel and constant pressure to be in the office,” are commonplace in the highest-level professional positions. She also suggested that “these ‘mundane’ issues-the need to travel constantly to succeed, the conflicts between school schedules and work schedules, the insistence that work be done in the office-cannot be solved by exhortations to close the ambition gap.”

I am not yet a mum myself, but a married woman with somewhat demands a housewife role at some point, which I have never imagined when living separate from my parental home. Although I have learned and committed for better time management as instructed in my first year bachelor degree, I still found it challenging to meet a time balance between my routine civic engagement, blogosphere, and families. My mother used to say to me once during my younger age when I involved much with youth engagement “home is just like a guest-house where I visited only night time while daytime, she could not find me at all.” When I have now tried to balance that family time, I have lost time for social life given the fact that I have to visit them on weekend. Is marriage an obstacle or would it be different if I would not be married? It partly yes and no: It is ‘no’ when it is rather a life choice to make time balance between work, society, and family and it is ‘yes’ as more attachment requires more allocation to each piece of that attached.

Having It All Myth # 2 : “It’s possible if you marry the right person.”

This remind me “The Lady” film which shows how supportive Aung San Suu Kyi’s husband is to support her political affairs. As Slaughter asserts such supportive spouse is necessary, yet it is not sufficient condition to “having it all.” While Slaughter stress much important role of a mother to take care her children and it is worse feeling for a mother being a way of children due to work obligation, I would stress beyond the mother responsibility, but also as a wife or a child of our parent or our closed relatives. Being married to the right person also demand us to take care more that we need to treat him/her the same way. As Slaughter writes: “Why should we want leaders who fall short on personal responsibilities? Perhaps leaders who invested time in their own families would be more keenly aware of the toll their public choices-on issues from war to welfare-take on private lives.”

Having It All Myth # 3 : “It’s possible if you sequence it right.”

Probably this is where I come to point of prioritizing the sequence of life ambition. As Slaughter warns “young women should be wary of the assertion ‘You can have it all; you just can’t have it all at once.’ ” You may choose carefully to sequence career advancement, family planning or getting a lower pressure job while kids are young and then lift up your career profile. Some friends suggested that having kids young is good for us in the future, but I found it similar to what Slaughter warns the challenges with financial means or career successes; while delaying child-bearing can also lead to infertility struggles or age discrimination. She asserts that “Neither sequence is optimal, and both involve trade-offs that men do not have to make.”

By raising these three half-truths about women having it all, Slaughter offers recommendations for structural and societal changes needed to finally give working professionals especially working mother—some hope of achieving work-life balance, such as: 1) changing the culture of face time; 2) revaluing family values; 3) redefining the arc of a successful career; 4) rediscovering the pursuit of happiness; 5) innovation nation; and 6) enlisting men. Find detail of these recommendation in her article.

On top of what she has recommended while giving myself reflection in Cambodian context, I would suggest the following recommendation that should apply internally rather than waiting for external factors:

Recommendation # 1 : “Dare to Dream”

“Women still cannot have it all” if she stop dreaming. My argument, although acknowledging the challenges as mentioned, is to dare to dream. Dreaming is not about to go to bed and dream during our sleeping time, but to plan our ambition.

Recommendation #2 : “Walk your life dream” 

The question, “Can Women Still Have it All?” seems ambitious but useful guide for women to plan a head or start planning now to “have it all.” Daring to dream alone is not enough; it is like you are dreaming in your sleeping time, nothing could not happen if you would not walk that dream out or wait other to hold your hand to walk that dream.

Recommendation # 3 : “Bringing others into your dream”

Family—either parent, husband/wife, or children—work, or what else you could think of as your life balance obstacle to success, I would suggest you to start touring them around your dream, make them understand about you, your personality, and your own dream. Once they understand your own dream, more or less toleration and support they could give lend to you. The challenges that most people including I myself used to face is the communication barrier, which I was not confident or fearful to speak my mind out. However, only when we could break that barrier to communicate our dream with our surrounding, we could get more support than misjudgment that hinder our dream.