Cambodia: Ten thousand families at world heritage site Angkor Wat forcefully evicted by government
10,000 families reportedly forced to leave their homes around temple complex denied adequate shelter, food and water
‘I choose to go with fear’ – resident of Angkor Wat
UNESCO says it did not call for people to be removed
‘The Cambodian authorities should immediately halt this harmful eviction drive that seriously risks impoverishing thousands of families’ – Ming Yu Hah
The Cambodian government’s ongoing removal of a reported 10,000 families from the Angkor Wat temple complex amounts to mass forced evictions, Amnesty International said today, as it called on authorities to immediately stop this violation of human rights.
Amnesty conducted in-person interviews this month with more than 35 people from sites around Angkor Wat and Run Ta Ek, the first of two planned resettlement sites. The research revealed that the evictions, which authorities have repeatedly touted as “voluntary”, are anything but, with residents reporting implicit threats if they did not move.
The research revealed a lack of appropriate safeguards against forced evictions as is required under international human rights standards, including inadequate notice ahead of the evictions, and the absence of genuine consultation with the people affected about the evictions and resettlement process.
Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty’s Deputy Regional Director for Campaigns, said:
“These are forced evictions in disguise on a mass scale. People were pressured to volunteer and made to feel fearful of reprisals if they refused to leave or challenged the evictions.
“The Cambodian authorities should immediately halt this harmful eviction drive that seriously risks impoverishing thousands of families.
“Angkor Wat is a national treasure and a living heritage site for Cambodian people. Its preservation, and the preservation of Cambodia’s rich cultural history, should go hand in hand with the protection of human rights, rather than be the reason for gross violations.”
People denied adequate shelter
Resettlement sites must include the provision of drinking water, houses, sanitation and access to schools, among other human rights, which must be provided before the evicted families arrive at the site, according to the UN Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-Based Evictions and Displacement.
Since families began arriving at Run Ta Ek in late 2022, they have not been provided with houses, safe drinking water and appropriate toilet facilities on arrival.
One man said he used to live close to his six children and 14 grandchildren, but the relocation process did not take that into account and placed them in sites far away from each other.
Another resident who lived by her neighbours for decades said, “our villages are no longer together – the families are mixed up now.”
Karuna*, a farmer and carpenter, told Amnesty the move cut his family off from tourist revenue, the crops he farmed and made Siem Reap town, which is close to Angkor Wat, a 38 kilometer-long commute away.
He said “On my first day here I started crying”.
A mother with an infant told Amnesty that she sleeps under a tarpaulin that the government gave her while her husband builds their house at Run Ta Ek. “Our baby can’t sleep, it’s too hot” she said. “There are no trees.”
According to the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a forced eviction is:
“the permanent or temporary removal against the will of individuals, families and/or communities from the homes and/or land which they occupy, without the provision of, and access to, appropriate forms of legal or other protection.”
UNESCO did not call for people’s removal
With lockdowns ending, tourist numbers climbing back to pre-pandemic levels and a growing population living around the temples, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in 2022 said the protection of Angkor Wat’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage site meant that thousands of families living there had to leave.
He told families that had not yet left that they would not receive compensation and that to avoid Angkor, the most popular tourist destination being removed from the World Heritage list, “clearly, the families must go.” In media reports, UNESCO has said it did not call for people to be removed.
If residents leave “voluntarily”, they receive about $300 in cash, a plot of land, sheets of corrugated iron, two months’ food supply, a mosquito net, a tarpaulin, and an ID Poor card giving access to government benefits. The “ID Poor” programme, supported by the governments of Australia and Germany, provides cash payments to those most in need.
Amnesty interviewed several residents who quoted the Prime Minister’s public comments and said they had no choice but to leave. “If we don’t go, we don’t know what will happen,” one said. They also said that officials from the APSARA Authority, a government-backed group created to manage the Angkor Wat site, returned multiple times to ask why they had not yet volunteered to leave.
“Three times they returned and each time I said ‘no, I won’t go’. But now I am going. I am scared,” one resident said.
None of the people Amnesty interviewed has been involved in a process of genuine consultation regarding the eviction and resettlement, or provided with any information that allowed them to access appropriate forms of legal or other protections.
Last year, officials began measuring people’s plots but did not say why. The residents thought it was to give them land titles until the officials returned weeks later and asked the residents to “volunteer to leave”.
In the most direct threats, APSARA told families they could stay if they wanted but that their homes would be flooded.
One woman in her eighties cried after saying she “volunteered” to leave her hometown.
Another resident said “I choose to go with fear.”
More than 100,000 people are estimated to live within the Angkor Wat heritage site; many have been there for several generations.
Trucks of soldiers transporting materials were a frequent sight during the research period, and while this was promoted as helping the families, many residents said they had to pay for the soldiers' meals or cook them food.
Amnesty calls on the Cambodian government and its partners in the management of Angkor Wat to ensure that the preservation of heritage does not come at the expense of the protection and promotion of human rights.
*Names have been changed to protect interviewees from possible retribution