Cambodia: Halt ‘mass forced evictions’ at World Heritage site Angkor Wat

The Cambodian government’s ongoing removal of a reported ten thousand 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. 

During March, Amnesty International conducted in-person interviews 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 also pointed to the lack of appropriate safeguards against forced evictions as per international human rights standards, including the lack of adequate notice prior to evictions, and genuine consultation with affected people on the evictions and resettlement process.  

“These are forced evictions in disguise and 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,” said Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty’s Deputy Regional Director for Campaigns. “The Cambodian authorities should immediately halt this harmful eviction drive that seriously risks impoverishing thousands of families.” 

These are forced evictions in disguise and on a mass scale.

Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty’s Deputy Regional Director for Campaigns

Resettlement sites, under the UN Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-Based Evictions and Displacement, 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. Since late 2022, when families began arriving at Run Ta Ek, they have not been provided with houses, safe drinking water and appropriate toilet facilities on arrival.  

One man said he had six children and 14 grandchildren who he used to live close to, but the land allocation system had placed them all far away from each other. Another resident who had lived by her neighbors for decades said, “our villages are no longer together – the families are mixed up now.”  

Farmer and carpenter Karuna* told Amnesty International the move cut his family off from tourist revenue, crops and created a long commute for him to continue working in Siem Reap town, where the ancient temples of Angkor Wat are located. Siem Reap is 38 kilometers (about 23.61 mi) from the Run Ta Ek resettlement site.  

“On my first day here I started crying,” he said.  

A mother with an infant told Amnesty International that she sleeps under a tarpaulin sheet 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.” 

No choice

The Angkor Wat temples, which date from the 9th to the 15th century, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most popular tourist destination in Cambodia, receiving an estimated two million visitors a year before the pandemic. 

With lockdowns ending, tourist numbers climbing back to pre-pandemic levels, and a growing population living around the temples, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said in a speech on 3 October 2022 that the protection of Angkor Wat’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage site meant that thousands of families living there had to leave.  

Hun Sen told families that had yet to move that they would not receive compensation, saying “if the time comes, even one cent is not given”. He said that to avoid Angkor being removed from the World Heritage list, “clearly, the families must go.” In media reports, UNESCO has said it did not call for population displacements. 

If residents “voluntarily” go, they receive a cash payment of roughly $300 USD, a plot of land, sheets of corrugated iron, two months’ food supplies, a mosquito net, a tarpaulin sheet, and an ID Poor card giving access to government benefits. The “ID Poor” program, supported by the governments of Australia and Germany, provides cash payments to support those most at need. 

Amnesty International 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 volunteered yet. 

“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. 

Veiled threats

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.”  

None of the people Amnesty International interviewed were engaged in a process of genuine consultation with regards to the eviction and resettlement, or provided with any information that allowed them to access appropriate forms of legal or other protections.  

Last year, when officials began measuring plots at homes at Angkor Wat, they were tight-lipped about the reasons, and residents became hopeful of getting land titles before the same officials returned weeks later and asked the residents to “volunteer to leave”. More than an estimated one hundred thousand people live within the Angkor Wat heritage site; many have been there for several generations. 

The mass eviction effort ramped up in the second half of 2022, when land officials went from house to house taking measurements and reviewing identity documents without telling residents why. Residents described their shock and fear when authorities returned weeks later asking them to volunteer to go to Run Ta Ek. 

APSARA authorities used subtle tactics to persuade them to leave “voluntarily,” such as not providing families with information about what would happen if they didn’t go or suggesting that they would get nothing if they waited.  

In the most direct threats, APSARA told families they could stay if they wanted but that their homes would be flooded.  

A woman in her eighties cried after saying she “volunteered” to leave her hometown. “I choose to go with fear,” another resident said. 

Trucks of soldiers transporting the materials also were a frequent sight during the research period, and while this was promoted as helping the families, many residents said that they had to pay for the soldiers’ meals or cook them food. 

Amnesty International 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. 

“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,” Amnesty’s Ming Yu Hah said.  

*Names have been changed to protect interviewees from possible retribution