Hundreds hand in petitions to protest Cambodia land grabs

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Hundreds hand in petitions to protest Cambodia land grabsPhnom Penh - About 300 Cambodians handed in petitions to government ministries and organizations in Phnom Penh to protest the growing nationalproblem of land grabs and forced evictions.

Seng Sokheng, a spokesman for the group, said the petitions represented the concerns of 15,000 villagers in 19 of the kingdom's 24 provinces and municipalities.

He said the petitions were submitted to the National Assembly, the cabinet of Prime Minister Hun Sen, the Council of Ministers, the National Authority on Land Disputes and three government ministries.

"Some ministries were happy to receive the petition, and others were not," Seng Sokheng said of the reaction the villagers had received.

Organizers said 200,000 hectares of land are at risk in this predominantly rural society, where more than 80 per cent of the population lives in the countryside. The petitions contained more than 15,000 thumbprints, a standard way of signing in Cambodia, where literacy rates are low.

The land seizures are carried out by companies with government connections or by politicians and the military. Development is the standard reason the government gives for granting mining or land concessions.

In a statement, the organizers said forced evictions, displacement and landlessness are reaching "crisis proportions."

"Evictions and land confiscation continue in Cambodia, despite calls by the World Bank, the ADB [the Asian Development Bank], the UN and Cambodia's donors for the government to enact a moratorium on forced evictions and land confiscation until it establishes effective conflict resolution mechanisms and relocation procedures meeting international standards," they wrote.

The organizers said communities are being driven into poverty by land grabs, and their efforts to find peaceful solutions are met with intimidation, court action and even violence from the police and military.

"When we try to protect our legal rights, we receive intimidation," villager Pol Cheoun from Battambang province in western Cambodia said in the statement. "We want the governmentand the donors to know what is happening. We are losing our land, forest and fisheries we depend on. We are getting poorer and poorer, and the rich are getting richer."

A community activist from the northern province of Oddar Meanchey told the Cambodia Daily newspaper that he is in favour of development, "but I don't want to see development lead people to tears."

Amnesty International wrote last year that 150,000 Cambodians are at risk of losing their land. (dpa)

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