CAMBODIA: In Cambodia, Sentencing of Women Activists Sparks Outcry

Saturday, May 26, 2012
International Herald Tribune
South Eastern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

Many around the world have died protecting it: land. The issue is highly charged in Cambodia where it flared again last week after 13 women, including a 72-year-old, were jailed for illegal occupation of land and “aggravated rebellion” after demonstrating on the site of their former homes in Phnom Penh, knocked down to make way for a commercial development, The Associated Press reported.

The sentences, after a lawyer-less, three-hour trial, have prompted an outcry from local and international human rights groups and Cambodian opposition politicians, the Phnom Penh Post reported.

An opposition lawmaker, Mu Sochua, called on the international community to suspend aid to the Cambodian government, saying financial contributions from overseas should be given to NGOs, instead.

“I call on women's networks across the world to take action. I call on (Secretary of State) Hillary Clinton to take action,” she said, singling out the United States.

Perhaps that was because Kurt M. Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs at the U.S. State Department, was in Cambodia on Friday, where he made plain one of his goals in talks with officials was to secure Cambodia's support for the peaceful resolution of another, major ownership issue flaring in Southeast Asia – over the South China Sea.

“We're at a critical period. We're counting on the leadership of Cambodia to ensure the future of peace and prosperity,” Mr. Campbell said in a statement released by the State Department.

The latest bout of trouble began last Tuesday, when the women were arrested as they sat on sand, singing, at Boueng Kak, Phnom Penh's biggest lake, where their homes had once been.

The roots of the dispute reach back to 2007 when the government awarded the land to the Shukaku company, owned by Lao Meng Khin, a senator of the ruling Cambodian People's Party.

As The Associated Press has reported, a Chinese company also is involved in the development deal, with plans to build a hotel, office buildings and luxury housing.

Last year, the prime minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, appeared to offer an olive branch, granting some land to families holding out at the lake. But they say the boundaries of their land were never made clear, according to the Save the Boeung Kak Campaign. Pung Chhic Kek, president of the group, said lawyers from her organization were barred from talking with the defendants and introducing witnesses.

Some of the women, including 72-year-old Nget Khun, had part of their sentence suspended. Nget Khun will only serve a year.

A government spokesman, Phay Siphan of the Council of Ministers, told the Phnom Penh Post the trial had nothing to do with the government. Neither the Ministry of Justice nor Phnom Penh municipal authorities could be reached for comment, the newspaper said.

Land, both urban and rural land, its ownership, management and use is an explosive topic in Cambodia. As my colleague Mark McDonald reported earlier in May, Chut Wutty, a prominent anti-logging activist who helped expose the secretive process of “concessions” by which land is being granted to Cambodian and foreign developers, was shot dead last month near a Chinese-built hydroelectric dam.

The report “Carving up Cambodia: One Concession at a Time” shows the concessions process.

Also earlier this month, facing growing protests by villagers and warnings about disappearing wilderness, the government suspended the granting of land to domestic and foreign companies in a move to curb forced evictions and illegal logging, Reuters reported.

But rights groups say the temporary measure does not go far enough and a permanent ban is needed.