About 60.000 people were forcibly evicted in Cambodia in 2011 alone, local human rights group ADHOC reports. Those who refuse to abandon their house or dare to demonstrate face risk of arrest or violence, and human rights defenders working on housing rights are persecuted. In a country where many non-governmental organisations are afraid to support human rights issues, Ee Sarom, and his organisation, stands tall. ”Sometimes I am scared but I have to do my job”, says Ee Sarom.
On 22 May 2012, thirteen activists, who have played leading roles in peaceful protests against expropriation of land and forced evictions in the Boeung Kak area in Phnom Penh, were arrested. Just 48 hours later they had all been convicted to two and a half years each in prison in a trial that did not meet international standards. Another two activists were arrested on the day of the trial.
The imprisonment of these human rights defenders sparked the extensive campaign Free the 15, which also managed to get the attention of the international community. After daily protests, the activists were finally released from prison in June. A great victory although they are still considered to be guilty of having committed a crime.
As Programmes Director at Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), a Cambodian NGO working for housing rights, Ee Sarom was one of several civil society leaders supporting the community’s mobilisation for the campaign.
”They are very courageous women. The case is not finished, we demanded them to drop all charges”.
Land grabbing and forced evictions effect every part of Cambodia and in Phnom Penh alone around 150.000 residents have been displaced since 1990. The government claims this is done to develop the country, but there is little sign of progress for those affected; the focus appears to be on short-term profit for the elite, without respect for human rights. The deficit in terms of human rights protection in Cambodia is great. The lack of access to justice is a serious concern.
“The laws are in place. The land law looks very nice but it has never been used in reality.”
Ee Sarom says that the authorities deny those affected to legally challenge decisions, and they meet peaceful demonstrations with violence and threats. People who refuse to leave may see their houses flooded or destroyed. The government uses nationalist arguments to silence protests against forced evictions, saying that the protesters are against the country’s development.
In this climate it is hard to fight for the people’s rights, but the campaign “Free the 15” was successful because the protesters managed to mobilise strong support from civil society. Ee Sarom means this cooperation is a key factor in a country that uses libel laws and other provisions to silence uncomfortable voices.
“The more we work together, the greater impact and results.”
On the day that 13 of the 15 were brought to trial, 500 people demonstrated outside the court building, using the lotus flower as a symbol of their peaceful protest. Government officials accused them of organising a revolution similar to what took place during the Arab Spring.
The 13 women were all convicted as charged, and sentenced to two and a half years in prison each. But the campaign grew, and after just over a month, the Appeal Court decided to suspend the prison terms and release them.
Ee Sarom knows that his work is risky. Government officials, or staff of companies involved in land grabbing, often threaten him. He has received numerous threats over email from people who pretend they are students and he has frequently being followed. But he likes his job too much to quit.
“Police officers have showed their gun, but I am ok. I can talk.”
Due to the risks, Ee Sarom routinely takes precautions. Instead of driving a motorbike – the most common means of transport in Phnom Pehn – Ee Sarom drives a car:
“It is so easy to say it was an accident if you are killed while driving a motorbike”.
The reality is that local authorities and companies involved in controversial land deals do not like outspoken NGOs and attempt to silence them, according to Ee Sarom. In Cambodia, he cannot speak publicly about the threats and he is glad for the strong support he gets from STT’s international partners.
“Sometimes I am scared but I have to do my job. I will do this until I retire.”
But in the future Ee Sarom would like to teach at a university.
“I would like to tell students something that is true.”
The government in Cambodia clamps down on civil society, but the successful campaign for the release of the 15 activists has shown that things can be changed.
“People are going down the street raising their voices for justice and more and more people have access to Facebook and Twitter and thereby the word is spread.”
The right to freedom of expression is restricted in Cambodia; the government controls all but two radio stations and all TV stations in the country. Ee Sarom believes that the future lies in the social media and grassroots mobilisation. By supporting one another, grassroots activists become stronger and more fearless. He thinks that the international community could do more to support these activists and communities.
“Many NGOs are afraid to support human rights cases. We in the STT are proud of our reputation and many organisations use our material and know who we are. We have never bowed our head when we were accused – we have always stood up and said ‘we are right!’. And so far it has worked.”
Bio: Ee Sarom
Profession: Programmes Coordinator at Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), a Cambodian NGO that works to provide pro-poor technical assistance for urban housing and infrastructure and to promote dialogue and raise awareness about urban issues. Ee Sarom is also currently acting as the STT Representative. He has previously worked for Veterans International in rural Kratie province for many years.
Education: Ee Sarom studied Social Science at the University of Build Bright, Phnom Penh.
Human rights at risk in Cambodia
Pervasive corruption deprives Cambodians of systematic protection of human rights and hampers developments within the justice sector. Ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) dominates power at all levels and stifles the, already waning, political opposition. Human rights defenders in Cambodia continue to face restriction and the government is seeking to introduce new laws codifying limitations to freedom of expression and association.
Government officials and their cronies use libel laws and other provisions to stifle dissenting opinion and protests. Prosecution of people expressing criticism against government policy is widespread, and disinformation, defamation and incitement are among legal provisions most commonly used.
Forced evictions and persecution of human rights defenders working on housing rights continue to be urgent concerns in Cambodia. Local human rights group ADHOC reports that 60.000 people were forcibly evicted in 2011 alone. Victims and activists stage demonstrations and spontaneous protests, facing risk of arrest and violence.
Local human rights group LICADHO points to a trend of increasing police violence to silence housing and labour rights activists in Cambodia. Between November 2011 and April 2012, police opened fire at human rights defenders on seven occasions, injuring over 20 people, and killing one. In April 2012, well-known environmental activist Chut Wuthy was shot dead by military police while documenting what he thought to be illegal logging close to a Chinese built dam in Koh Kong province.
The state or the ruling party control or own most broadcast media, and amid widespread illiteracy, studies have shown broadcast media to be the most influential. Newspapers, which have limited outreach outside the cities, reflect a wider range of political affiliation. Threats, harassments and imprisonment of journalists typically target those working for media with links to the opposition. Internet access remains extremely limited, with around three percent of the population being connected. Nevertheless, the Internet is emerging as an arena for alternative voices.
In December 2010, a new Penal Code entered into force in Cambodia. The Code has several provisions that restrict freedom of expression, including of the media. Provisions about incitement and criticism against the courts or the court system make it risky for journalists to report on legal affairs and for human rights defenders to pursue their work.
Cambodia has a vibrant human rights community with a large number of non- governmental organizations (NGOs). In December 2011, civil society actors from across Cambodia mobilised to continue protest against the draft NGO law, when the revised forth draft was made public. The most recent draft provides ample opportunity for local authorities to block grassroots activities, does not specify the grounds upon which an organisation may be denied registration, or what may lead to the dissolution of an organisation. Only Cambodians have the right to form NGOs, which excludes refugees, migrant workers and stateless persons.
Capital: Phnom Penh
Population: 15 million (UN, 2010)
Life expectency: 62 years (men), 65 years (women) (UN)
Main religions: Buddhism
Head of state: King Norodom Sihamoni (mainly ceremonial role)
Head of government: Prime Minister Hun Sen
Other: Relies heavily on aid, being on of the poorest countries in the world. During the Khmer Rouge era, 1975 – 1979, an estimated 1.7 million people died in Cambodia, due to starvation, exhaustion, torture and execution.
Sources: BBC newsCategories: Uncategorized.
Tags: #FreeThe15BK, Freedom of assembly, Freedom of expression, and Land and housing rights.
Campaigns: Human rights defenders in focus.