One of the hopes, if not justifications, for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia is that the tribunal will promote the rule of law in Cambodia by modeling concepts of procedural due process and equality before the law. But these ideas are spreading through the country slowly, if at all. Just beyond the court’s perimeter are two particularly disturbing examples of the vacuum of accountability that exists in Cambodia today. Driven by hunger for development and economic growth, the government has turned a blind eye to land grabs and trafficking of young girls, essentially legalizing these abusive practices.
LICADHO, a well-respected Cambodian NGO, reports from a survey of half of the country’s provinces that approximately 250,000 Cambodians were evicted between 2005 and 2009. Last year alone, the NGO helped nearly 50,000 people facing land grabbing. Another reputable NGO, Adhoc, says that over 12,000 families were victims of land grabs last year. Focusing on the capital, Phnom Penh, another NGO estimates that around ten percent of the population has faced eviction since the turn of the century.
In just the past month, over 20,000 people have been evicted from their homes and businesses on or around Boeung Kak Lake in central Phnom Penh. Homeowners report that they were given no warning before armed construction workers began pumping thousands of gallons of sand and water into their homes. A new residential, commercial, and entertainment complex is to be built on the site of the former lake. Ironically, many of the residents of this neighborhood were displaced once before, by the Khmer Rouge.
Surya Subedi, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia, agrees that “[l]and grabbing by the rich and powerful is a major problem in Cambodia today.” Indeed, when I last visited Cambodia, in 2007, Cambodian pop music featured songs about the land grabbing phenomenon, demonstrating its prevalence and importance to the population. In contrast, the Director-General of the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce says that, “[w]hen land belongs to the government, they can do what they like with it . . .[S]ome people are just trying to hold back our country’s development with their protests.”
After a World Bank inquiry finding a denial of due process in the adjudication of land claims in the Boeung Kak Lake case, the government gave residents a week to decide whether they would accept $8,500 compensation in exchange for the destruction of their homes. Local activists who wish to keep their homes say that international pressure is the only solution, as the government is in collusion with the development corporations.
Financial interests run deep in Cambodia’s trafficking problems as well. A recent investigation by Cambodian NGOs found that recruiting companies have solicited over 20,000 Cambodians, including girls as young as thirteen, to work in Malaysian households.
The government is alleged to be complicit in this business on several levels. Commune level officials have reportedly falsified birth certificates so that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs can issue passports with false birthdates for girls under twenty-one years of age. Last September, Adhoc issued a report on severe cases of abuse at “training” facilities for domestic workers in Phnom Penh, including forced imprisonment, beatings, and even rape and torture. When one woman incurred injuries attempting to escape from such a facility, local police interrogated and chastised the neighbors who assisted her.
MP Mu Sochua, former Minister for Women’s Affairs, says that the government is protecting these recruiting companies because of financial interests in them. In addition to this corruption, Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, notes that international efforts to train Cambodian officials about trafficking have had little success. In other words, the rule of law is still a distant aspiration, and it’s not clear what role the ECCC has played in bringing it home to Cambodians.
(photo credit to Aratxa Cedillo)