Friday, September 02, 2005

Cambodia 'suffering land crisis'

Cambodian labourers look at bulldozers and trucks at a site in Phnom Penh, 08 July 2005.
Cambodians are losing their homes to developers

There is a major land crisis in Cambodia, a leading United Nations human rights official has said.

The special rapporteur on adequate housing, Miloon Kothari, spent the past two weeks travelling around Cambodia.

He said that rich and powerful interests were grabbing land, leaving thousands of people dispossessed.

Over the past year land deals have been an increasing source of controversy, but this is the first time they have gained international attention.

The UN official has been to several disputed sites. They include a village in Poipet near the Thai border where five people died during forced evictions, and a river island in Phnom Penh, whose inhabitants are under pressure to sell up to a property developer.

There is a frenzy now across the country by the rich and powerful in Cambodia to acquire land
Miloon Kothari, UN special rapporteur on adequate housing

Mr Kothari is particularly concerned about the practice of land swaps. In recent months, dozens of publicly owned facilities have been given to private companies for redevelopment without any bidding process.

The companies are supposed to build new public facilities and housing in return, but Mr Kothari said they were using poor land which did not have access to electricity or running water, and thousands of families had been displaced. He is asking for more transparency in the government's dealings.

"There is a frenzy now across the country by the rich and powerful in Cambodia to acquire land. I think the donor communities and the UN agencies need to be much more outspoken. What I find missing here is a sense of outrage that should be there," he said.

Cambodia's Prime Minister, Hun Sen, announced a moratorium on land swaps at the beginning of June, but deals are still coming to light.

Last week, the interior ministry announced that part of Phnom Penh's royal palace had been given to a property developer.

Infamous tiger hunter given 7 years in jail in Cambodia

(Kyodo) _ An infamous tiger hunter in Cambodia, who had been on a conservationist group's list of most-wanted hunters since 2001, has been convicted of poaching and given seven years in jail, the group said Friday.

According to a statement released by WildAid, a U.S.-based environmental group, a court in the southwestern province of Koh Kong handed the sentence down Wednesday to Yor Ngun, 57, for his illegal hunting of endangered animals.

Yor Ngun, regarded as a skillful hunter, had been on the group's most-wanted list since he was first identified and interviewed by conservationists in the northern province of Preah Vihear in 2001.

According to the statement, he was first arrested by the Forestry Administration in September 2004, but was released after signing a document in which he pledged not to become a repeat offender.

On March 29, 2005, he was rearrested by the Forestry Administration in Koh Kong for transporting 25 bear jaws and 82 bear nails.

The provincial court's verdict concluded that Yor Ngun had killed "many endangered species" and gave the prison sentence based on Article 97 of Cambodia's Forestry Law.

Yor Ngun is known to have tracked and killed 19 tigers, 40 leopards, 30 elephants, 40 Malayan sun bears and three Asiatic bears, and 500 gaur, banteng and sambar in over 10 provinces, WildAid's statement said.

A government official told Kyodo News on Friday that the offender claimed during a court hearing Wednesday that he was poor and therefore had to hunt to earn his living.

"He actually was not poor because when he was arrested, he had $500 in his pocket," said Sun Hean, chief of international operations for the Agriculture Ministry and an adviser to WildAid.

He said the offender "moved very fast to different parts of the country for hunting animals...He was all over the potential places where animals live."

Suwanna Gauntlett, WildAid's country director for Cambodia, welcomed the successful prosecution.

"It is very important step forward for wildlife law enforcement which shows that the Forestry Administration is increasing its capacity to investigate and prosecute forest crimes," she said.

She said that since 2001, the Wilderness Protection Mobile Unit, a joint venture between the Forestry Administration and WildAid, has discovered 700 illegal hunters or traders and has rescued 28,000 live animals.

In 2000, the number of tigers in Cambodia was estimated at about 700 nationwide, but now there remain only some 200 to 300, Sun Hean said.

Tigers are hunted mainly for buyers in China and Thailand. In China, they are especially in demand for traditional medicines and gourmet dishes, while in Thailand their pelts are in demand for decorative purposes.

U.S. Creates Endowment for Cambodia Group

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- The United States has established a $2 million endowment to assist a Cambodian group researching crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge government in the late 1970s, the U.S. Embassy said Friday.

The fund will provide annual funding for the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which also tries to raise awareness about Khmer Rouge atrocities, embassy Charge d'Affaires Mark Storella said.

The radical communist policies of the Khmer Rouge, which ruled Cambodia in 1975-79, led to the deaths of some 1.7 million people from starvation, disease, overwork and execution. But none of its top leaders has faced trial.

Youk Chhang, the group's director, signed an agreement establishing the permanent endowment with a representative of the United States Agency for International Development on Aug. 30, the statement said.

Youk Chhang said Friday that interest from the endowment will help sustain his institute -- also known as DC-Cam -- which is in the process of turning itself into a permanent center for new generations of Cambodians to learn about the genocide.

"In that way, we have a secured foundation," he said. "The center will become a place where genocide survivors' children can reconnect to the past while trying to move on with their lives into a better future."

DC-Cam is an independent research institute that originated in the Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University in 1995 with a grant from the State Department.

It holds a large quantity of documents and evidence of Khmer Rouge crimes.