Violent land eviction in Cambodia's tranquil beachside municipality

Published on May 3, 2007
Until now there has been no investigation or prosecution by the authorities into the excessive violence used by the police

As the construction excavator made its way towards the residents of Commune 4, police brandishing riot shields and guns marched behind it in its wake. The residents stood behind their make-shift barricades of barbed wire and household materials, steadfast in the path of the massive excavator and its entourage. This was the scene at Commune 4, Mittapheap District in Sihanoukville a municipality best-known as a beach holiday destination early in the morning of April 20, 2007.

Some 150 military police and police officers armed with guns, electric batons and tear gas were there to conduct an eviction raid on the disputed land which is home to over 110 families. No warning or official notice of the eviction had been given and a violent confrontation between police and villagers ensued.

Two policemen and one military policeman were injured, as well as a number of villagers including a 77-year-old man who received an electric shock to his forehead and currently remains in hospital. Eighty houses were burnt down and a remaining 26 were demolished. Thirteen villagers, aged from 16 to 56, were also arrested during the raid. One of those arrested, the 16-year-old youth who was also injured during the eviction, was released on bail on May 2 after LICADO lawyer submitted bail motion to the court. But the other 12, some with weak health conditions, remain detained at Sihanoukville prison.

Civil society groups have challenged the legality of the eviction, which was reportedly based on a search warrant for guns not an eviction notice issued by the Sihanoukville Municipal Court. The authorities later on stated that they did not find any guns in the community. This eviction also took place despite the fact that the ownership of the land is disputed, and at least some of the families have a good claim to the land under Cambodia's Land Law.

The cadastral office claims the land is owned by a woman named Peng Ravy, reportedly the wife of an adviser to a high-ranking CPP official, who allegedly bought it from three previous owners who had purchased the land before 1993. Local authorities were consistently unable to provide any details of original ownership by these three individuals, saying that the documents had been lost.

However, at least 17 of the evicted families had lived on and occupied the land since 1995, giving them claims to ownership of the land under the law. Prior to the eviction, the local authorities offered compensation to these 17 families to leave the land a clear recognition that the families did have valid claims to the land. The authorities offer of compensation plots of land in another area or alternatively US$500 cash was rejected by the families because they considered the land to be too far away and the amount inadequate. The authorities refused to conduct a survey all the families in the community, in order to determine who else may have valid claims to ownership.

History of the dispute
Despite the disputed ownership being unresolved, Sihanoukville authorities proceeded with attempts to forcibly evict the families living on the land. On September 25, 2006, more than 80 police and other forces came with five bulldozers and materials ready to demolish houses in Commune 4. The residents resisted by throwing stones at them, causing the police to shoot into the air in an attempt to scare and disperse the residents. One resident was shot in the leg during the incident. The forces retreated from the scene only after they saw a group of journalists arrive there.

Following this failed eviction attempt, the Sihanoukville Municipality issued an announcement on October 27, 2006 ordering the residents to remove their houses from the land within 15 days. The residents refused to comply and continued to live on the land. On January 19, 2007, the Sihanoukville Municipality re-issued the announcement ordering the villagers to remove their houses within seven days, which they again refused to do.

On February 5, 2007, a Cambodian's People Party member of the senate Men Monly visited the community on a fact finding mission in order to make a report for the senate. He met with the Sihanoukville Municipality and the villagers, who submitted to him a plan for a possible resolution. Mem Monly apparently forwarded the plan to the senate however no resolution was made.

LICADHO calls for the immediate release of all the 13 villagers arrested during the raid, who have been charged with intentional destruction of property and physical assault against the authorities. Furthermore, LICADHO condemns the authorities' lack of transparency over ownership of the land and their willingness to conduct a violent eviction, rather than using peaceful negotiation to try to resolve the dispute.