Foreigners join villagers' fight against eviction
Vincent MacIsaac in Phnom Penh
A handful of western rights monitors and documentary filmmakers have embedded themselves within a community facing eviction on the doorstep of the national assembly, as Cambodia's epidemic of land grabbing enters its fourth year.
German filmmaker Nana Yuriko started sleeping at Dey Krahorm village as an act of 'pure solidarity'. 'If they can sleep here, why can't I? The families feel protected while we're here,' she said.
Australian Chris BakerEvens said he was moved to act by 'the escalation of intimidation' against residents before Christmas. 'Rumours circulated through the community that the company [7NG] would come at night to demolish their houses, so we decided to stay overnight in case the company did something.'
Canadian Lee Robinson said after 14 months of documenting 'the day-by-day, home-by-home destruction' she began linking arms with residents in near daily standoffs with police and men they identify as 7NG staff. She said she was frustrated that appeals to NGOs, embassies and the media had been ignored.
The 21/2-year dispute between Dey Krahorm and 7NG turned violent in December, six days after activists marked Human Rights Day by linking arms with residents facing eviction from parcels of land that have become among the most valuable in the city.
During a seven-day confrontation, residents and monitors - most of whom are women in their 20s - were pelted with rocks and bags of urine by police and the alleged 7NG staff. Since then the westerners say they have been photographed, followed and threatened by police. Ten of them are sleeping in the community in shifts of two to four and they travel in groups to ensure safety.
Residents say they are helping. 'When they are here we are safe. If they go, 7NG attacks,' said 61-year-old Lee Luleng.
Resident Phan Chanthol, 27, agreed. He said Cambodian human rights workers were too afraid to visit the site. 'They are afraid that they will be killed,' he said.
A diplomat in Phnom Penh, however, warned that the monitors were putting themselves at risk and urged them to contact their embassies. But Ms Robinson said she had lost respect for the embassies. 'One reason we decided to stand so close in solidarity with Dey Krahorm is in response to the lack of involvement from our embassies. We decided we were better suited to represent our countries.'
Donor agencies and embassies said they were pressing the government to curb land grabbing by the country's elite. However, the number of cases has risen with the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association recording the eviction of 26 communities last year, compared with 16 in 2006.
It is often difficult to determine which firms are responsible because information on land grabbing is tightly controlled.
Srey Sothea, 7NG's president, admitted the situation at Dey Krahorm was out of control. He denied, however, that his staff were involved. 'We are a construction company not a security firm,' he said. He denied that 7NG was paying police up to US$10 per day to clear the site.
He blamed the Phnom Penh municipality and the Interior Ministry for the situation, saying 7NG had no control over how their staff behaved.