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Amnesty urges Cambodia to end evictions at Angkor Wat

Rights group dismisses government claim that people left the world’s largest religious monument voluntarily

An elderly Cambodian woman installs her possessions in the shade of a temple in Angkor Wat as she waits for tourists to beg for money on Nov. 29, 2000.

An elderly Cambodian woman installs her possessions in the shade of a temple in Angkor Wat as she waits for tourists to beg for money on Nov. 29, 2000. (Photo: AFP)

Published: November 14, 2023 10:02 AM GMT

Updated: November 14, 2023 12:05 PM GMT

London-based Amnesty International has called on Cambodian authorities to end forced evictions around the UNESCO-approved temples of Angkor Wat.

In its latest report, released on Nov. 14, the human rights group found 40,000 people had already been evicted from the world’s largest religious monument, dating back to the ninth century.

The report found residents were evicted or pressured to leave Angkor following harassment, threats, and acts of violence from authorities. 

The rights group dismissed the official claims that evictions were voluntary and necessary to protect the UNESCO World Heritage site.

“They must immediately cease forcibly evicting people and violating international human rights law,” said Montse Ferrer, Amnesty’s interim deputy regional director for research.

“Cambodian authorities cruelly uprooted families who have lived in Angkor for several generations, forcing them to live hand to mouth at ill-prepared relocation sites.”

Angkor Wat, spread over 402 acres, is considered the world’s largest religious structure by the Guinness World Records. 

The temple complex was the world’s top tourist destination before the Covid-19 pandemic struck three years ago when the government decided to move out all the families living at the site. 

Most of them were relocated to a remote village called Run Ta Ek and offered compensation.

Amnesty conducted a series of interviews at Run Ta Ek and in Angkor between March and July this year and found a lack of adequate sanitation. Families living under tarpaulins also complained of a lack of employment opportunities.

The nearest provincial town, Siem Reap, is a 45-minute drive, and “to cover building and living costs, families had to pawn items given as part of the relocation program and took on debt.”

UNESCO has been criticized for lack of clarity since 1992 when Angkor was named a heritage site. The UN body then said that “habitation in the core restricted areas was inappropriate to the preservation and presentation of major archaeological sites.”

The Amnesty report noted that people living in traditional villages still held the right to live around the 163-hectare site and the temples – a mix of Buddhist and Hindu cultures.

The report said that UNESCO’s recommendations and the Cambodian law had failed to make clear which settlements were traditional villages and which ones were not, a situation made all the more difficult by the 30-year civil war that in many cases ended historical land claims.

“This lack of clarity has persisted,” the Amnesty report said, adding that many residents “...even described themselves as Angkorians or the children of Angkor.”

In the 2010s, up to 2 million tourists visited Angkor Wat each year and the local population ballooned from 20,000 in the early 1990s to about 120,000 in 2013 when many could support their families by selling souvenirs, trinkets, garments, food and drink.

The Amnesty report called on UNESCO to condemn the Cambodian government’s eviction policies and warned of a further escalation.

“Unless there is serious pushback from UNESCO, conservation efforts may increasingly be weaponized by states for their own ends, at the expense of human rights,” Ferrer said.

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