Cambodia defends family relocations around the famous Angkor Wat temple complex

Cambodia is rejecting allegations it violated international law by evicting people living around its famous Angkor Wat temple complex, saying in a report to UNESCO that it was only relocating squatters and not residents of more than 100 traditional villages

David Rising
Monday 04 March 2024 10:43 GMT
Cambodia Angkor Wat
Cambodia Angkor Wat (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

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Cambodia is rejecting allegations it violated international law by evicting people living around its famous Angkor Wat temple complex, saying in a report to UNESCO released Monday that it was only relocating squatters and not residents of more than 100 traditional villages.

The U.N. cultural agency had demanded a response from Cambodian authorities in November after a scathing report from Amnesty International claimed that thousands of families, some that had lived in the area for “several generations," were being forcibly evicted from around the World Heritage Site as Cambodia seeks to develop the area for tourism.

Amnesty questioned Cambodia's assertion that the families were being voluntarily relocated, citing interviews with people who said they had been forced out, while maintaining that resettlement sites lacked adequate water, sanitation and other facilities, and criticizing UNESCO for failing to challenge Cambodian authorities.

Paris-based UNESCO responded that it was “deeply concerned about the allegations" and ordered Cambodia to report on the state of conservation at the Angkor site about a year earlier than previously planned, while urging “them to ensure that any relocation is voluntary.”

The Angkor site sprawls across some 400 square kilometers (155 square miles), containing the ruins of Khmer Empire capitals from the 9th to the 15th centuries, including the temple of Angkor Wat. UNESCO calls it one of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia, and it is critical to Cambodia’s tourism industry.

In its report to UNESCO, Cambodia argued it was only moving people involved in the “illegal occupation of heritage land,” and not those identified by UNESCO as inhabitants of traditional villages shortly after the Angkor complex's inscription in 1992 as a World Heritage Site.

“At the Angkor heritage site there are 112 villages where people have been living for generations, but there are squatters who have been coming in, and these squatters are the people who are being relocated, not the people living in the traditional villages,” Long Kosal, spokesperson for the Cambodian government body in charge of the Angkor Wat site, told The Associated Press by telephone.

“The people in the villages are part of our heritage; that is why we call Angkor a living heritage site.”

Amnesty said, however, that it appears Cambodian authorities have decided to “cherry-pick” what details were included in their new report, and that it remained extremely unclear who could be considered part of the 112 villages.

“It was never made clear to the families who those families were ... and therefore who would ultimately have to leave and who would get to stay,” said Montse Ferrer, the head of Amnesty's research team investigating the Angkor Wat resettlements.

“So fast forward to now, that confusion remains on the books," she said, speaking from Geneva.

She said several families relocated told Amnesty that they had been living around the Angkor Wat site for generations, and had not wanted to leave their homes. She added that their research found that very few people had been resettled “voluntarily,” as Amnesty would define it, with many being threatened or otherwise coerced.

Amnesty said the threats came from the highest levels, noting in its November report a speech from former Prime Minister Hun Sen in which he said people “must either leave the Angkor site soon and receive some form of compensation or be evicted at a later time and receive nothing.”

Hun Sen's son, Hun Manet, was elected to succeed him last year and has continued the policies, reiterating the official Cambodian government line that Angkor risked losing its World Heritage status if the families were not relocated.

UNESCO in November, however, emphasized that it has “ always categorically rejected the use of forced evictions,” and “that at no point did it request, support or participate in the program.”

The agency refused to comment on Cambodia's new submission, saying that it still needed to be analyzed by its experts, but that it "stands by its previous statement regarding the situation in Angkor."

In October, Cambodia opened the Siem Reap-Angkor International Airpor t, the country's biggest, to serve as a gateway to the site with a capacity of 7 million passengers a year.

Cambodia began moving people from the site in 2022. To date about half of an estimated 10,000 families have already been relocated, primarily to a vast new settlement known as Run Ta Ek, about 25 kilometers (15 miles) away from the Angkor Wat site.

New arrivals were given small plots of land, a two-month supply of canned food and rice, a tarpaulin and 30 sheets of corrugated metal to use to build a home, according to Amnesty's findings.

Conditions have improved as authorities have added much of the necessary infrastructure to support the settlement, Ferrer said, but they still have not addressed the debt incurred by many in building their new homes nor the loss of income suffered by moving them.

“They were given a plot of land, that's great, but what about everything else they lost?" she said.

During a visit to Run Ta Ek in December, Prime Minister Hun Manet referenced Amnesty’s allegations that Cambodia was responsible for human rights abuses, saying improvements were being made rapidly and that “you should come and see for yourself within a year.”

In its report to UNESCO, Cambodian authorities highlighted the fact that the people relocated were now landowners.

“They now have the status of villagers, equal to that of the traditional endogenous population settled in the Angkor zone for generations,” the report said.

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