In early January, during our holiday break, Chris Michael, Program Coordinator at WITNESS, and I visited WITNESS’ partner LICADHO, the Cambodian League for the Promotion & Defense of Human Rights, in Phnom Penh.
While we were there, the LICADHO team invited us to accompany their medical staff on a visit to “Andong Village,” a site where evicted families have lived since 2006.
This community of 1380 families made a living as day laborers and street vendors in Sambok Chap in central Phnom Penh. In June of 2006 security forces showed up, tore down their homes, and transported the shaken families in trucks to “Andong Village”, 20 kms outside Phnom Penh. The evictions were executed in blatant disregard of due process and in violation of Cambodian laws, leaving many of the evicted families who had legal possession of their land without redress.
In the words of Chhiv Kek Pung, Founder and President of LICADHO (in addressing the US Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission Hearing in September 2009): “Cambodia is currently facing a crisis in human rights, which constitutes a backward slide in the country’s democratization and efforts to promote good governance.”
On the way to "Andong Village," I shared the back of the vehicle with a young Cambodian woman called Soriya* and her 3 year old niece. She told me that she was one of Sambok Chap’s residents. Her family was able to make a meager living and send their children to school until the bulldozers showed up, made them homeless and deprived them of their livelihoods.
The bumpy road took us to a sprawling field where there is no access to schools, no sewage, no safe water, not even an access road, and thousands of people live in make-shift tents and houses built from debris, providing little shelter. “Andong Village” is nothing more than a barren field that floods in the rainy season, far off the clean water grid. We walked through filthy, contaminated water as we met the families who are forced to live here. LICADHO’s medical team makes regular visits to this community and Dr. Horng Lairapo told me that the health problems are many, and that the children are particularly vulnerable and are dying of preventable diseases. The sheer distance from any medical facilities is making medical treatment inaccessible. He points to a 1 year old girl with severe jaundice and explains that her mother cannot afford the equivalent of $0.40 cents it would cost to take her to the hospital in Phnom Penh.
In addition to providing medical care, the LICADHO team supports communities like the Andong Village in their fight for justice. Soriya* was one of the people trained by LICADHO to use a flip camera to document her family’s eviction. She tells me how her hands were shaking so violently in the face of the riot police that the video she made was almost unusable. I admire her courage, as Naly Pilorge, LICADHO’s highly respected and passionate Director had explained to me how the environment in Cambodia is becoming more hostile to human rights organizations and how threats, intimidation, and persecution of human rights defenders are on the rise.
Naly had also emphasized how, in this environment, she sees video as the way forward in their advocacy strategies and how the WITNESS partnership is enabling her team to work with grassroots communities in making video a permanent tool that documents, undeniably, their human stories of eviction.
Shaky or not, this video and many others are proving increasingly effective in providing a growing record of abuse. Videos that are used to supplement LICADHO’s excellent reports and, together, to pressure to the Cambodian government for justice. This pressure is a necessity as, despite repeated strong condemnations of forced evictions from the international community, the violations continue: Cambodia: Gov'ts and UN demand halt to forced evictions
Now and in the future, these personal accounts of human rights violations are becoming an indispensable tool for justice.
*For safety reasons, we did not use Soriya’s real name.
WITNESS partnered with LICADHO in 2008 to train human rights defenders and community organizers to use video to in the fight against forced evictions, aiming to end the increasingly rampant abuses of land and housing rights.
One example of the many illegal evictions happened in Dey Krahorm, a community of 400 families living in Phnom Penh. On January 24, 2009 demolition workers and police in riot gear showed up with tear gas and bulldozers and destroyed poor families’ houses and possessions. As one of the residents testifies in the video below: “they dumped me in the field, in the sun, no roof, no tarpaulin, no water, no nothing…”
For more video evidence of the Dey Krahorm eviction, see these two blog posts by Ryan Schlief, WITNESS' Asia Coordinator: Without warning, bulldozers enter Dey Krahorm and New video of Dey Krahorm from WITNESS partner LICADHO.
WITNESS is working with the LICADHO staff and local community organizers to optimize video as a tool in their struggle for justice including conducting trainings focused on how to use video effectively, strategically, and safely, in this context. Over the past year, LICADHO has produced several videos on forced evictions in Cambodia, including the communities of Borei Keila, Dey Krahorm, Group 78 and Boeung Kak Lake. Videos and information on each is available here on The Hub - including the shootings in Siem Reap Province.