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Phnom Penh, where Porsches and poverty exist side by side

9 Apr

9 Apr 2015 By Sylvia Varnham O’Reganm (ABS)


Driving down a busy Phnom Penh road, I notice a motorbike coming up behind us with a huge cage on its back. It’s so big I can barely see the driver.

As it whizzes past I notice the cage is squashed full of chickens, their flattened heads and claws poking out the sides.

There are no rules on Cambodia’s roads and you never know who’ll pull in front next. Or when.

The next car to pass is a black Porsche; its shiny body close to the ground as it hums past and weaves around the squashed chickens before evaporating into the distance.

Sights like this are common in Phnom Penh, where symbols of wealth and prosperity sit alongside extreme poverty and desperation.

It’s my first visit to Cambodia and I’m hoping to learn as much as I can about how the country has rebuilt itself in the aftermath of the violent Khmer Rouge regime and whether it’s capable of supporting refugees from Nauru, as planned by the Australian government.


The Khmer Rouge was a brutal regime that controlled Cambodia in the late 1970s, responsible for killing more than one million people.

In the aftermath of the regime a lot of children were left without parents and today more than half of Cambodia’s population is under 35. You don’t see very many elderly people around.

In the capital, tourists can go and visit the Killing Fields – where mass killings took place during the regime and graves were filled with bodies – to learn more about what went on.

When I visit the site, I notice a tree that has been fitted with a sign that says babies were killed during the regime by being smashed against it and tossed into graves. Another sign in front of a large tree says that speakers had been hung from its branches and music blasted to drown out victims’ screams.

Staring at the ground, I notice a human bone poking out from the dirt. When it rains apparently more can be seen, and teeth too. A sign warns visitors not to step on the bones.

I am later told that many young Cambodians grew up knowing little about the regime and that a law had been passed in 2009 that meant the history of the Khmer Rouge had to be taught in high schools.


A friend I’m travelling with tells me that she can’t believe how much Cambodia has developed since she was last there in 2007 and according to the Cambodian National Institute of Statistics (NIS) the poverty rate has dropped significantly since 2007. Despite this impressive score card, the gap between the rich and poor is still vast and many people still have limited access to basic necessities like food, electricity and working rubbish systems. And you don’t have to look far to see it

We visit a small lakeside village on the outskirts of Phnom Penh where there are small houses sitting on stilts above the ground. Underneath the houses lies a large, soupy lake: a mixture of sewage, rubbish and water. A flattened cigarette packet on the ground reads “Fine”.

Across town is a huge government building called the Council of Ministers’ Headquarters. Its modern exterior shines brightly in the mid-afternoon sun, exuding prosperity and wealth.

Just next to it is another government building with a huge pyramid-like structure at its centre. I am told this building was paid for by China.

The buildings looks out over a wide valley called the Boeung Kak lake. There is no water in the lake because it was filled with sand five years ago to make way for development. Today it looks dusty and depressing.

A Cambodian man named Phearak who is travelling with us tells me that he used to go to the lake with his parents as a little boy.

He now lives in Australia so it’s the first time he’s seen it since the lake’s been filled.

“To come here now, it’s very sad,” he says.

The Cambodian government is big on development and has grand plans be a middle-income country by 2030. Cambodia’s burgeoning middle class has also brought with it a new attraction to owning shiny objects and an obsession with social status.

“People are very materialistic here,” Phearak says. “You can see lots of people have fancy mobile phones. It’s about status; about fitting in.”


We travel out of Phnom Penh for a few days and on the way we stop at a temple with more than 300 steps to the top.

There are a whole lot of Cambodian children hanging around the bottom of the steps holding fans. They follow us as we walk up, fanning us until we tell them to stop.

At the top, sweaty tourists sit mopping their brows and gazing happily out over majestic views that seem to stretch into infinity.

Weaving among them are the loyal fanners who seem undeterred by the tourists’ reluctance to cough up any money.

Through an interpreter I ask one of them what she is doing up there. She tells me she has school in the morning but comes to the temple in the afternoon to make money. She asks us what we’re doing and we tell her we’re on our way to another town.

She tells us to be careful and says that it could be risky. There is a chance that we could have our stomachs cut open and our kidneys stolen. I wonder where she got that idea from

Back on the road, I can’t stop thinking about that little girl and what kind of life she’ll lead. We’ll be heading back in Phnom Penh in a few days. It seems like a place where poverty is common and people can easily fall through the cracks. But it’s also the most prosperous city in Cambodia and has a large number of schools and universities.



‘Same Faces’ Protest Against PM’s Comments

31 Mar

By: Mech Dara , The Cambodia Daily, | March 31, 2015

Incensed by the prime minister’s assertion last week that the “same faces” always show up at protests, a group of Phnom Penh’s most prominent anti-eviction activists picketed City Hall on Monday to vent their anger.

At the opening of the Sokha Phnom Penh Hotel on March 23, Mr. Hun Sen took aim at the active protest movement in the city, and the NGOs he claims are behind it, saying that “Cambodia has become a paradise for inciting demonstrations, and the demonstrators have the same faces again and again.”

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Former Boeng Kak residents submit a petition at the World Bank’s office in Phnom Penh on Monday. (Satoshi Takahashi)

On Monday, as about 50 members of the displaced Boeng Kak community petitioned the World Bank and the U.S. and E.U. embassies, asking for their intervention, another 30 activists who regularly front land-rights protests played perfectly to the prime minister’s narrative.

“We came here to rebuke the accusations of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who accused us of being the same faces coming to protest again and again,” Bov Sorphea said.

Ms. Sorphea has come to the fore of recent demonstrations in the absence of Tep Vanny, who was jailed along with six others for obstructing traffic after placing a bed on the road outside City Hall in November to protest severe flooding of the Boeng Kak neighborhood.

Ms. Sorphea reasoned that the same faces were present at protests because the prime minister had failed to solve the city’s many land disputes and address, in particular, the long-running grievances of the Boeng Kak and Borei Keila communities.

“It’s like someone is drowning, but you do not help the person who is drowning, you take a paddle and hit them on the head,” she said.

Refugees must enter legally: gov’t

13 Mar

By Phnom Penh Post

A senior refugee department official has said that ethnic Jarai Montagnards fleeing alleged persecution in neighbouring Vietnam need to enter Cambodia via official checkpoints in order to register as asylum seekers on arrival.

General Sok Phal, director general of the General Department of Immigration, made the comments after meeting with British Ambassador Bill Longhurst, who travelled to Ratanakkiri province to meet with a local human rights group last week.

“Illegal immigrants do not cross through international checkpoints, but through illegal checkpoints,” Phal said, adding that his department only monitors the 13 official land crossings and any would-be asylum seekers wishing to enter Cambodia would have to make it to the nearest immigration office to have a chance of registering.

Police deported 45 Montagnard asylum seekers last month, and since then, four of the deportees have reportedly “disappeared” from their village.

Another 13 were officially recognised as refugees by the Ministry of Interior yesterday. At least another 23 are thought to be in Cambodia and seeking asylum.

Phal said 10 asylum seekers in the capital had filed their claims, which are under review.

Land sales forced, say families

13 Mar

By Phnom Penh Post

Thirty-two families in Kampong Chhnang’s Teuk Phos district filed a complaint to rights group Adhoc yesterday, reporting they had been pressured by local authorities to sell their land for just $150 per hectare.

The land is being accumulated by a man seeking to develop it as a cassava plantation who has bought over 1,000 hectares.

“I want to keep the land to farm and support my family in the future,” said 40-year-old resident Chan San. He said the local authorities told him that if he didn’t agree to move, they would force him to.

“Compared with the market price, it is so cheap – it’s like giving it away for free,” said Adhoc coordinator Sam Chankea. He said that 400 families in the area had already agreed to sell. In 2014, the government provided families three hectares of land each in Kraing Skear commune, but now most of them have decided to relinquish their property for a small profit, he added.

Chhoub Phoen, an assistant to the Kraing Skear commune chief, said that none of the sales had been forced, and most “agreed because they think don’t have ability to develop the land”.

Chan Kean, a representative for the developer, also stated that acquisitions were not forced.

Rallying and marching to Hun Sen’s House, requesting for new installment of electricity

23 Feb

By:Sovann My, Sahrika  February 23, 2015

This morning, around 100 people from three different communities including SOS community, Boeung Kak Lake and Borei Keila community rallied together and marched to Hun Sen’s house in order to seek for his intervention on the new installment of electricity over their households.
See photos in actions as below:

IMG_8710 IMG_8723 IMG_8725 IMG_8731 IMG_8734

Villagers Speak Up as Reservoir Plan Digs Into Their Rice Fields

23 Feb

By:AUN PHEAP , The Cambodia Daily, February  23, 2015

Villagers in Banteay Meanchey province on Saturday protested against a local military official’s plan to build a reservoir on their land, then sell the dirt at a profit.

The reservoir is being dug over 52 hectares in Serei Saophoan City’s Kompong Svay commune by Brigadier General Plon Dara, commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces in Banteay Meanchey.

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Villagers gather on Saturday near an excavator beginning to dig a 52-hectare reservoir that will engulf their rice fields in Banteay Meanchey province’s Serei Saophoan City. (Adhoc)

According to villager Nem Chhun, 39, 120 people from 85 families who stand to lose their rice fields to the reservoir demonstrated outside the provincial government hall on Saturday after excavators moved in and began digging.

“We protested, demanding that the governor help us, because Mr. Plon Dara is digging up the rice fields and taking the earth for sale,” Ms. Chhun said Sunday, adding that she would lose a 2,500-square-meter plot of land if the digging continued.

“We will burn the excavators if they come back to dig up our rice fields,” she said.

Brigadier General Dara argued that the digging was lawful because his son, Plon Hong, received permission from the Ministry of Water Resources and the provincial government in 2008 to build a reservoir there for irrigation purposes.

“Provincial authorities allowed my family’s company to build the irrigation [reservoir],” he said. “The agreement stated that the company will take the earth from the rice fields and the state will get a water reservoir for irrigation.”

Ms. Chhun, however, said the planned reservoir would be of little use to the protesting villagers if they had no crops.

“We don’t need an irrigation system, because we will have lost all the land here. So how can we cultivate rice with that irrigation?” she said.

She also said the company had not shown residents a plan for the proposed reservoir, and that villagers believed the company was only seeking to excavate and sell the earth.

Provincial administration chief Chhoeun Krayong said the digging had been temporarily halted while local officials discuss the villagers’ demands.

They are asking the government to make the general’s company stop digging the reservoir and replace the earth that had been excavated so far, and are also seeking titles to their farmland, Mr. Krayong said.

“I told the [villager] representatives that we will find a solution for those families for the [first] two requests only, but we are not able to issue land titles for those families because this is state land,” he said.


Protesters Blocked From Marching to Freedom Park

6 Feb

By: Mech Dara  , The Cambodia Daily, February  06, 2015

Government security guards and riot police Thursday blocked about 50 demonstrators from marching to Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park to protest for the release of 19 imprisoned anti-eviction activists, monks and opposition CNRP figures.

The protesters, which included members of the city’s embattled Boeng Kak and Borei Keila communities, planned to rally at Freedom Park before delivering a petition to the National Assembly, and gathered outside the US Embassy at about 9:45 am before marching to the park.

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A protester holds up a sign calling for the release of 19 jailed activists outside the National Assembly on Thursday. (Siv Channa / The Cambodia Daily)

But they were stopped at nearby Wat Phnom by a roughly equal number of Daun Penh district security guards and riot police.

“We will not allow you to march, as City Hall has not given you permission,” district security chief Kim Vutha told the group, adding that they would have to ride tuk-tuks to the National Assembly.

The demonstrators agreed, and successfully delivered their petition to both the National Assembly and Royal Palace before returning home.

City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said any future attempts by the group to protest would be prevented.



Official Defends Imprisonment Of Activists to Visiting US Envoy

28 Jan

By: Khuon Narim , The Cambodia Daily, January 28, 2015

A secretary of state at the Foreign Affairs Ministry on Tuesday defended the government’s widely criticized imprisonment of 11 activists and an opposition official during a closed-door meeting with a visiting US diplomat.

Daniel Russel, an assistant secretary of state at the US government’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, visited Cambodia on Tuesday and met with Foreign Affairs Ministry Secretary of State Ouch Borith.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting at the ministry in Phnom Penh, Mr. Borith said he told Mr. Russel that the media had communicated a biased representation of the November arrests of 11 activists.

“He only knows about this issue through the media,” Mr. Borith said. “The media reported that they were arrested after protesting over land issues and for expressing themselves freely ….This is not a good reputation for Cambodia. “

Seven of the activists were arrested after they placed a bed frame in the road in front of Phnom Penh City Hall to protest flooding of their Boeng Kak neighborhood. The other four were arrested the next day while protesting outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court against the detention of the first seven.

All 11 were summarily tried and convicted, and sentenced to a year in prison. On Monday, the Appeal Court upheld the convictions, but reduced the sentences for nine of the activists.

Mr. Borith told reporters that police were justified in arresting the activists because they had been affecting public order.

“Cambodia was enforcing the law because those people were causing traffic problems, affecting other people’s rights and affecting … social public order,” he said.

Mr. Borith also defended the imprisonment of CNRP official Meach Sovannara, who was also arrested in November over his role in a violent clash that erupted during a protest on July 15 that left a number of district security guards with injuries.

“I do not understand,” Mr. Borith said of the criticism surrounding Mr. Sovannara’s arrest.“We had precise evidence to arrest him. You saw what happened to our security guards …. Is that right? “

In a speech at an event organized by the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace on Tuesday, a transcript of which was posted to the US State Department’s website, Mr. Russel did not directly address the wave of arrests but said that Cambodians wanted an impartial judicial system.

“They want the government to do more to clamp down on corruption and increase respect for human rights,” he said.


An ‘indefensible’ verdict

27 Jan

By:Khouth Sophak Chakrya , The Phnom Penh Post  January 27, 2015


A Boeung Kak lake supporter holds a portrait of a detained community activist during a demonstration yesterday in front of Phnom Penh’s Court of Appeal. Hong Menea

Despite hopes to the contrary, 10 female land activists, including seven well-known Boeung Kak lake protesters, and a monk, had their convictions upheld yesterday morning at theAppeal Court, two and a half months after they were arrested and sentenced to a year inprison within 24 hours of their respective arrests.

Although most received slight reductions in their prison terms and fines, it appeared to be of little consolation.

Following the verdict, the jump-suited defendants yelled and protested the “injustice” of the decision in the courtroom before being dragged out and into waiting police vans.

Two of the group – Boeung Kak community leader Tep Vanny and monk Soeun Hai – were not offered any leniency in their jail sentences by presiding judge Nguon Im.

As news of the verdict arrived outside the court, waiting family members, including a number of children, were inconsolable as they clutched portraits of their mothers, wives and daughters.

Thirty-six NGOs, rights groups and unions later slammed the verdicts as “indefensible”, saying they followed an appeal hearing “that was characterised by an almost total absence of fair trial rights”.

The seven Boeung Kak women were convicted on November 11 for blocking traffic on Monivong Boulevard with a bed during a protest the day before, in which they called on City Hall to drain floodwater from their houses.

Five of them – Kong Chantha, Song Srey Leap, Bo Chhovy, Nong Sreng and Phan Chhunreth – had two months shaved off their sentences yesterday.

They were also ordered to pay a fine of 1.5 million riel, about $375, rather than the original 2 million.

Nget Khun, the 75-year-old protest stalwart known as “mummy”, had her sentence and fine halved, meaning she has less than four months remaining to serve. Vanny had her fine reduced to 1.5 million riel but saw her prison term remain intact.


Boeung Kak Lake community activists shout to supporters from the windows of the Court of Appeal yesterday in Phnom Penh prior to their sentences being delivered. Hong Menea

During Thursday’s hearing, the judges denied a defence request to show a video that allegedly proved the women had not blocked traffic.

Separately, the three women in the second case – arrested on November 11 while protesting outside the court during the trial of the Boueng Kak seven – had their sentences reduced from one year to 10 months.

Im Srey Touch, Heng Pich and Phoung Sopheap were all convicted on November 12 for “aggravated obstruction of public officials”. Pich lives at Boeung Kak, while Srey Touch is a former resident. Their fines were also reduced from 2 million to 1.5 million riel.

But Soeun Hai, a monk from Stung Meanchey pagoda who was defrocked after his arrest, had his one-year sentence and 2-million-riel fine upheld. Hai took part in a number of protests last year outside the Vietnamese Embassy after a spokesman’s views on the history of the former Kampuchea Krom provinces sparked controversy.

In explaining his verdict and the sentence reductions, judge Im said he had tried to “offer leniency” to older and ill housewives who need to take care of their children. Hai, however, as a monk, had “damaged the national religion”, and thus was not worthy of a reduction in his sentence, he said. The decision to uphold Vanny’s jail sentence in full was not explained.

Outside, about 200 gathered activists and supporters voiced their disappointment at the verdict.

Om Sakhorn, 64, an aunt of Srey Leap, clutched a Cambodian flag as she paced in front of the court.

“There is no justice in Cambodia, please let the ICC [International Criminal Court] help Cambodian people to find justice,” she said tearfully.

Metres away, Nou Chivoan, the 16-year-old son of Nong Sreng, lay on the ground in front of a portrait of his mother.

“My mother is not guilty. Please release her,” he said.

On Friday, departing UN rights envoy Surya Subedi cited the case of the seven Boeung Kak women as one example of “how the courts are being used for political ends” in Cambodia.




Appeal Court Upholds Controversial Convictions

27 Jan

By:MECH DARA , The Phnom Penh Post  January 27, 2015

The Court of Appeal on Monday upheld the protest-related convictions handed down to 11 activists in November, but reduced the prison sentences of all but the most high-profile members of the group.

Rights groups called the decision “indefensible.”


Women from Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak neighborhood—part of a group of 11 activists who were imprisoned on protest-related charges in November—are pushed into a van after the Appeal Court upheld their convictions Tuesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Seven of the defendants were arrested in mid-November for blocking traffic during a protest in front of Phnom Penh City Hall against the municipal government’s failure to address the repeated flooding of their Boeng Kak neighborhood. The other four were arrested the next day for “obstructing public officials” while protesting outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court against the arrest of the first seven.

The municipal court convicted all 11 in quick succession and sentenced each of them to a year in prison. Rights groups condemned the trials, which they said were politically motivated and intended to silence anti-government dissent.

On Monday morning, the Court of Appeal upheld the original verdicts against the 11 activists and the one-year prison sentences for the most prominent defendants—anti-eviction activist Tep Vanny and former monk Soeung Hai, who was defrocked over the case.

The other nine had their sentences reduced by between two and six months on the grounds that they were either sick, old or had young children to care for, leaving all 11 with time left to serve. Except for Mr. Hai, the court also reduced the original 2 million riel (about $500) fines for the activists to between 1 million riel (about $250) and 1.5 million riel (about $375).

The court, Presiding Judge Nguon Im said, decided “to uphold the verdict of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court as valid.”

During their appeal hearing last week, the seven activists arrested in front of City Hall confessed to dragging a bed frame onto Monivong Boulevard to illustrate the fact that their homes were inundated with filthy water because the government had not built them an adequate drainage system.

But Judge Im said Monday that he was unconvinced by their claims that the stunt had not affected traffic.

“It was not right that they stood in the street. They could have stood somewhere else. Standing in the middle of the street causes traffic jams,” he said.

During their own appeal hearing last week, the other four activists all denied obstructing officials in front of the municipal court. Mr. Hai, the defrocked monk, said he was attacked by government security guards while trying to take photos of a scuffle that broke out between them and protesters.

Judge Im said he was unmoved.

“Soeung Hai, the monk, who people believe in and respect, committed a crime and acted contrary to Buddhist principles, so we cannot reduce his sentence,” he said.

A brief fracas ensued inside the courtroom after the judges announced their decision and the activists refused to heed their orders to stay quiet. Security guards bundled them out of the room, some by their hands and feet.

During the announcement, about 300 people protested outside the courthouse demanding that the judges acquit the 11 activists.

After hearing the court’s decision, Uk Vichea, Ms. Vanny’s husband, said the judges were doing the government’s bidding.

“The court is under the influence of the government,” he said. “If it followed the law, it would have released them. The court wants to break my wife’s spirit so she doesn’t protest against the government anymore, but it won’t work because she is strong and brave.”

Ms. Vanny has been at the forefront of protests against the forced evictions at Boeng Kak for the past several years. The government has forced out some 3,000 families from the neighborhood to make way for a high-end real estate project backed by CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin.

In a joint statement, 36 human rights groups, associations and communities condemned the Appeal Court’s decision and said the government had never managed to prove its case against the activists.

“The Court of Appeal has once again shown that evidence of a crime is not necessary for a conviction in Cambodia. Mere criticism of the government is all it takes to secure a prison term,” Moeun Tola, a program director for the Community Legal Education Center, said in the statement.

The groups accuse the court of failing to conduct a fair trial, repeatedly interrupting the defense lawyers and refusing to let them screen video footage showing that the women who protested in front of City Hall did not actually block traffic. As for the other four activists, the groups say the government’s own two witnesses could not definitively place them at the scene during the original trial and that neither of these witnesses appeared for cross-examination during the appeal hearing.

“Furthermore, neither the judges nor prosecution established that the defendants had committed violence during the protest, a fundamental component of the article under which they were convicted,” they say in the statement.

The groups ask the courts to drop the charges and release the activists immediately.

Lawyers for the activists said all 11 would appeal to the Supreme Court.

The case has attracted the attention of several foreign delegations to Cambodia, some of which sent representatives to observe the appeal hearings last week. The U.N.’s visiting human rights envoy to Cambodia, Surya Subedi, also attended. At a press conference on Friday, the day after the hearings, Mr. Subedi said that a lack of judicial independence remained one of the most pressing human rights problems in the country.




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