Jailed at 75: Veteran campaigner leads Cambodia eviction battle

Jailed at 75: Veteran campaigner leads Cambodia eviction battle
Activist Nget Khun (right), more commonly known as "Mommy" to her supporters.

PHNOM PENH - Street vendor-turned-rights activist Nget Khun, known locally as "Mommy", is a leading figure in Cambodians' fight against forced evictions. And at 75, she's just been jailed for a year.

"Keep struggling to save our home!" the feisty septuagenarian told her daughter Eng Sokha during a recent visit to prison, where stress and loss of appetite weighs heavily on the veteran campaigner.

Activists say the sentencing of Mommy and several other women from her Boeung Kak Lake community on trumped-up charges is the latest wave of repression against land rights activists.

This week the United Nations called on the Cambodian authorities to stop "judicial harassment for political purposes" while European ambassadors met with local authorities over the jailings.

But for now, Mommy languishes in a cell with two fellow activists.

"She is in prison but she has no fear," said Sokha, an accounting student who lives in the family's modest wooden house alongside six sisters, her brother and their children.

Mommy has been a constant presence at land protests in the capital Phnom Penh. She has been hospitalised for injuries during demonstrations and was jailed for a month in 2012.

This time her crime was "obstructing traffic" during a small protest against the routine flooding her community suffers due to a huge real estate project, headed by a close ally of the premier.

Under authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has run Cambodia for some 30 years, "powerful people have bought the land, lakes, and mountains," Chan Soveth of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) told AFP.

Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said Cambodia's "kleptocratic ruling class" had taken over the land of thousands of poor Cambodians -- a capitalist version of the mass expropriations under the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s.

Resource control

But if the Khmer Rouge abolished land ownership in an ultimately disastrous attempt to create a communist utopia, the current ruling elite simply aims to control resources from forest to farmland, activists and NGOs claim.

Some 770,000 Cambodians, or six per cent of the population, have fallen victim to eviction since 2000. Around 22 per cent of the country's land has been confiscated, rights groups say.

The World Bank suspended new loans in 2011 over the evictions and a complaint is pending at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

But three years on little has changed. The prime Boeung Kak Lake site is languishing, with no sign of the promised high-end development, while the flood waters keep coming back.

The Chinese company backing the project has pulled out and the current developers could not be reached for comment.

After a long battle, Mommy and her family -- along with 770 others -- were offered nearby plots of land as compensation.

But Mommy's family remains at their Boeung Kak home as they say they cannot afford to build a new house on the plot they have been given.

Sokha says: "We don't have money to move our house."

They are also still waiting to be given the formal title to the new land -- a protection against future evictions.

Other residents in Boeung Kak have been offered nothing.

Powerful politician

The once vibrant community's problems began, she explained, when the government leased Boeung Kak -- a lake vital to the city's drainage -- to Shukaku Inc.

Shukaku is headed by Lao Meng Khin, an influential senator who is close to Hun Sen and one of the ruling Cambodian People's Party's major donors.

In 2010, Shukaku began to pour tons of sand into the lake, causing the floods.

Mommy's family refused an initial offer of $8,500 compensation from the company, saying it was far below market rate for the land and didn't even cover the cost of building her house.

"Back then they came both day and night with armed men to threaten us to leave the area," Sokha recalled.

Earlier this year some 3,500 families eventually accepted compensation "at a fraction of the market rate," according to NGO Inclusive Development. But nearly 1,000 families still refuse to move.

Sea Thuon, 38, a garment worker with two young children, has been living in squalor since the flooding began. Earlier this month she and her family slept in the street after rain inundated their modest dwelling.

"The development of Boeung Kak lake has caused us misery," she told AFP as she watched her husband pumping dirty floodwater out of their home.

According to Inclusive Development the Boeung Kak evictions are the worst mass expulsions in Cambodia since the evacuation of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge.

For many residents like Mommy their plight brings back traumatic memories of the 1975-1979 regime, when more than two million citizens were forced from the cities in a bid to create an agrarian utopia.

When Mommy returned to the capital after years in a labour camp at the fall of the Khmer Rouge, she found her house occupied by others.

Still mourning the disappearance of their eldest son, her family eventually settled by the Boeung Kak Lake in 2005.

Little did they know their problems had only just begun.

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