Amnesty International called on the Cambodian government last Thursday to halt a wave of forced evictions affecting tens of thousands of people, a problem that shows no sign of letting up. Amnesty says women are increasingly putting themselves at the forefront in standing up for land rights.
Amnesty’s report tells the story of five women from across Cambodia who have been affected by forced evictions.
The rights group says the Cambodian government is ignoring its international obligations by pushing ahead with forced evictions, and says Phnom Penh risks reversing 20 years of hard-won gains in reducing poverty.
“Amnesty International has been calling for an end to forced evictions for several years now. We’ve documented this extensively and of course the vibrant civil society in Cambodia has also been documenting and reporting on this practice which is unlawful under international law,” said Donna Guest, the deputy director of Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific department.
Women tell their stories
Guest says Amnesty wanted to focus on women and tell their stories as human rights defenders, as mothers and as wives.
"And this is to show the more human face - that these people are not just a statistic, these people have lives," she explained. "These people have had very adverse consequences - some of them have lost their homes, all their possessions, families have been split up. So that is why we are here today - to show the human face.
At the launch of the report, Guest was flanked by three Cambodian women who have been affected by evictions.
One of those women, Hong Mai, was evicted from her home in northwest Cambodia two years ago to make way for a sugar concession awarded to a ruling party senator.
She says armed authorities destroyed her house and all her possessions when they burned down her village and evicted the residents.
Hong Mai was five months pregnant, yet when she traveled to the capital days later to seek help from Prime Minister Hun Sen, she was accused of violating the Forestry Law and put in jail.
Eight months later she was released after signing an agreement to withdraw her claim to her land.
Hong Mai has not seen her husband since, and she and her five children are destitute.
She wants consumers in the European Union to boycott Cambodian sugar because, she says, "it is made from the land, life and blood” of people who have been thrown off their land.
Guest says Amnesty does not take a position on issues such as sanctions, but the organization is adamant that development should not come at the expense of human rights.
And as a European-based organization, Amnesty’s staff will continue to meet policymakers in Brussels and other European countries.
“We will ask our membership in the European countries - which are extremely active on this issue - to appeal to their members of parliaments, and also to raise awareness. I think part of any advocacy strategy must be to raise awareness so that people are aware of what’s going on. A lot of people have no idea what’s going on in Cambodia and this report today is an attempt to raise this profile, bring it to international attention, including in the EU countries,” Guest stated.
Amnesty’s focus on women and land rights was bleakly highlighted when a prominent land rights activist at the huge Boeung Kak eviction site in central Phnom Penh committed suicide this week.
Chea Dara, the mother of two children, threw herself off a bridge Tuesday - reportedly after her family was refused land at the lakeside site after a five-year battle.
At the release ceremony for the Amnesty report, Chea Dara's fellow activists wore black in tribute to her.