A enormous travesty of justice occurred in Cambodia this week. Thirteen women representatives from the Boeung Kak Lake community in the capital, Phnom Penh, were sentenced to up to two-and-a-half years in prison after a summary trial. The women, including a 72-year old, were arrested on May 22 whilst singing at a peaceful protest to support 18 families whose homes had been buried in sand by a private developer (view the video). The arrest, trial and sentencing took place within 48 hours, with no time for the women’s lawyers to prepare a defense. During their trial, the police arrested two more community representatives who were waiting outside the courthouse prepared to testify as witnesses for the 13 women on trial.
The women now languishing in a Cambodian prison have been tireless human rights defenders since their land was illegally leased to a private developer fie years ago. The League of Boeung Kak Women Struggling for Housing Rights, as they call themselves, have led an incredibly inspirational and effective campaign to defend the land and housing rights of their community against some of the most powerful forces in Southeast Asia. This campaign has included everything from direct action on the streets of Phnom Penh and taking blows from police, to submitting a successful complaint to the World Bank Inspection Panel implicating a Bank-funded titling project in the land grab by formalizing the process of dispossession of over 4000 families. The Panel found that non-compliance with Bank operational policies contributed to the "grave harm" that the residents have suffered. In response to the damning findings of the Inspection Panel and a direct appeal from the indomitable League of Boeung Kak Women, World Bank President Robert Zoellick took a surprisingly bold stance in defense of human rights and World Bank safeguard polices by suspending new lending to Cambodia until the government came to an agreement with the Boeung Kak residents. A week after this lending freeze was announced, Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a decree returning 12.44 hectares of land to the remaining residents and ordering authorities to issue them title.
While some 631 families have now received land titles, granting them formal security to their land and homes, 94 remaining families were arbitrarily excluded from the deal and remain under threat of forced eviction. And some 3500 families have been displaced from their homes in the Boeung Kak area over the past three years after accepting inadequate compensation under extreme duress. Many of these families have fallen into desperate poverty as a result of the eviction. In light of this situation, the League of Boeung Kak Women – many of whom have already received title themselves – have continued to fight and put themselves at great risk in order to secure the housing rights of their neighbors. They have now paid the heavy price of their liberty for this just cause.
Amidst this crisis, we have recently learned that the World Bank is preparing to reengage with the Cambodian government and terminate the lending freeze as a result of the "significant progress" that the Bank claims has been made on the case. The new East Asia Vice President Pamela Cox indicated to us that she wanted the Bank to get back to business in Cambodia and put the Boeung Kak Lake story behind them, rejecting any Bank responsibility to remedy the harms done. Days before their arrest, the Boeung Kak representatives wrote to President Zoellick asking him to keep his word and maintain the freeze until a remedial agreement is reached with both the remaining and the evicted residents.
We are now calling for a massive show of international support and solidarity with the imprisoned human rights defenders of Boeung Kak Lake.
To read the letter to the World Bank President Robet Zoellinck and President-Elect Jim Yong Kim, signed by Habitat International Coalition General Secretary, click here