A group of 300 Cambodian people affected by land grabs and evictions - and representing thousands more - gathered in Phnom Penh yesterday to tell the government of their concerns, and to call with a single voice on the government and donor nations to act to protect their land.
Presenter: Robert Carmichael in Phnom PenhSpeaker: Leng Simy, villager; Loun Sovath, monk; Soal Nak, Jarai villager
CARMICHAEL: It's hard being heard in Cambodia, particularly if - like 80 percent of Cambodians - you live in the countryside. It's harder still if you want to speak out against rich or powerful people trying to take your land. That's not something the government encourages, and the courts are seldom much help. That leaves few options. But this week in Phnom Penh a group of 300 Cambodians from 19 of the Kingdom's 24 provinces and municipalities joined up to petition the government, the prime minister, parliament and the national land dispute authority, to help them keep their land.
This is an agricultural society, and for rural Cambodians land is life. Organisers of the petitioning event say the amount of land under dispute for the 15,000 people they represent totals more than 700,000 hectares. It is commonly acknowledged by rights organisations that rising landlessness could prove the country's biggest challenge. In recent years Cambodia experienced a boom in land prices, and a similar rise in evictions, land grabs, and the granting of huge concessions to often-shadowy companies. That result works against the stated desire of government and donor nations to reduce poverty.
The government, ever wary of dissent, seems to have been taken off-guard by the petitioners. Authorities are trying to find out if civil society organisations were behind the collaborative effort. Whether or not there was help from civil society is beside the point. The voiceless rural people whose land is being taken from them - often with official collusion - got the chance to be heard. People from across the Kingdom stood up and told the media and each other of their experiences and fears.
Leng Simy's story was typical. She comes from Pursat province in western Cambodia, and told attendees that a company came and took communal land five years ago to plant cassava and a palm oil plantation.
LENG: As the journalists know, the land is our rice pot. Before we were afraid that the government didn't know we had a problem there. But now we have raised this problem, so the government is now aware of it. We will not file a complaint again.
CARMICHAEL: From further west in Cambodia, Loun Sovath, a monk, said villagers in his area of Chi Kraeng in Siem Reap province were victims of a high-profile land grab by rich and powerful people earlier this year which saw them lose 100 hectares. Some villagers were shot and wounded during a protest at the disputed site. The monk said the police arrested and handcuffed villagers just as the Khmer Rouge had done, then jailed them.
LOUN: I request that the land issue please be considered by the government. This is not a game. Before when they had a problem people were not injured - they still had the use of their arms and legs, even those who were poor. But this time they have broken arms and legs, and imprisoned people who have also lost their land.
CARMICHAEL: Soal Nak is from the Jarai tribe, an ethnic minority in the north-eastern province of Ratanakkiri whose communal land is under threat. He applauded the idea of submitting the petitions to the different ministries, and like many of the people has hopes that the national government will resolve their problems where the local authorities have failed.
SOAL: Our people remain worried about losing our land and our forests and our traditional way of life. If we lose our forests or our land, then our traditional ways go too, and more than that we will lose our togetherness as a tribal community.
CARMICHAEL: At the close of the two-hour session, a man stood up at the microphone and sang a haunting song - one I am told whose words he composed himself. He sang about loss - the loss of his land, his cattle, his livelihood, and the corrupt authorities who refused to help. It was more than a metaphor for the difficulties experienced by rural Cambodians. His worries are those of many tens of thousands. But today, at least, those concerns were heard.