Mak Siv Hong appeals to a local official outside her home (photo by Kate Bartlett)
In a dusty outer suburb of the Cambodian capital sits a litter-strewn patch of land with three small shacks. One, a makeshift corrugated iron structure, is covered by a hole-strewn tarpaulin which leaves its residents partially open to the elements.
It is this seemingly innocuous plot of land that is now at the centre of a vicious dispute between the three families who have long occupied it and a company, with powerful government connections, that claims to own it.
Mak Siv Hong, 51, lives in the shack with her family of three. The past year has been a nightmare of repeated intimidation and attacks by thugs she claims were hired by the Khun Sear Import and Export Company to try and push them off the land.
Siv Hong, dressed in pink floral pyjamas and broken sandals, sits on a plastic chair in front of her ramshackle one-room home describing what the family has suffered.
“I’ve lived here since 1982,” she says. “Since last year we’ve had trouble because the value of this land has grown.”
“An Oknha [Cambodian business tycoon] and his family are after this land. He offered us $15,000 for it, but we know it’s worth much more,” she explains, adding that she doesn’t know what exactly the company plans to do with the land.
It was after Siv Hong and her husband Ly Sreang Kheng, 60, refused the company’s offer that the intimidation began.The first casualties were the family’s dogs, who were found dead on the property one morning - poisoned.
Next came the snake attack.
One night last year, Sreang Kheng got up in the middle of the night only to stumble over a sack of three hissing cobras that had been thrown in through the window. “They want to chase us away. They tried to kill us with those snakes,” Siv Hong says.
Then things got even worse. Sreang Kheng was attacked by a man wielding an axe while he was driving his motorbike a few meters from his home. He had to have five stitches to the resulting gash in his head.
The family have filed complaints with the police after each incident, Siv Hong said, but no arrests have been made.
And last week the house was attacked and damaged by about 20 thugs brandishing sticks and Samurai-style swords. Yim Leap, a representative of Khun Sear Import and Export Company, a son of Deputy Prime Minister Yim Chhay Ly, told the Cambodia Daily at the beginning of April that he had sent the thugs to the land to ask the families to leave, but that his men had gone peacefully and only acted in self defence when the families attacked them.
Land grabbing and evictions have long been the most contentious issue in this Southeast Asian nation, with poor families regularly being evicted, often violently, to make way for real estate projects in urban areas or rubber and sugar plantations in the countryside.
The issue is complicated by the fact that after the fall of the ultra-Marxist Khmer Rouge regime, families who had been resettled in the rural areas moved back to the cities and settled where they could. Some have government-issued land titles, some do not, but even those who do are not necessarily immune from land grabs where powerful interests are concerned.
Earlier this month, local NGO Licadho reported that the number of Cambodians affected by land disputes had reached the half million mark, and that so far this year alone more than 2,000 families have been involved in disputes.
““These latest figures are shocking,” says LICADHO Director Naly Pilorge. “Half a million people affected is a truly shameful milestone. Each number represents a potentially ruined life, an individual who faces severe and long-term hardship.”
“Without land, they no longer have the means to provide themselves with the basic requirements for a decent life. The government must act now to end this,” she added.
The government has said Licadho’s figures are inflated and sensationalist.
While Siv Hong’s family’s case has received little international media attention, past land evictions, notably in Phnom Penh’s Beong Kak lake area where thousands of families were violently evicted to make way for a ruling party senator’s real estate project, resulted in strident criticism from donor countries, the UN, and international rights groups such as Amnesty International.
The World Bank ultimately halted funding to Cambodia over the issue. Under immense pressure, Prime Minister Hun Sen placed a moratorium on the granting of new land concessions in 2012 and began a countrywide land-titling project for poor Cambodians without legal proof of land ownership.
But the history of Siv Hong’s family’s dispute is complex.
According to Ony Man, legal officer with local NGO Housing Rights Task Force, after the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the plot of land—which also contains a three-story concrete building adjacent to the shacks—was home to occupying Vietnamese soldiers. After they pulled out, landless people settled on the plot.
“Then the commune office moved here and then in 2005 the [local branch of the ruling] Cambodian People’s Party put an office on the first floor of the building,” Man explained. “But the people were living here before the CPP and commune offices moved here,” he reiterated.
The government then utilized a common method of doing business in Cambodia. It claimed the land was state property, and in exchange for other land gave it to the Khun Sear Import and Export company. Man described the dispute as “a high profile case.”
But despite the threats and attacks, Siv Hong remains defiant. She swears that without adequate compensation her family will not budge.
“Even if they kill me I’ll resist,” she says adamantly.