Last Updated: Thursday, 26 May 2016, 08:56 GMT

State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2010 - Cambodia

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 1 July 2010
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2010 - Cambodia, 1 July 2010, available at: [accessed 27 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

The ruling Cambodia People's Party (CPP) continued to consolidate its power in 2009, filing a spate of lawsuits against opposition politicians, civil society activists and journalists. Human rights groups, and even the United States embassy, pointed to corruption and political interference in the courts, and accused the CPP of attempting to create a one-party state by muzzling opposition voices, according to media reports, including a 23 July article in The National newspaper. Mu Sochua, an opposition parliamentarian who lost a defamation lawsuit filed against her by Prime Minister Hun Sen, said in an interview that such tactics had a dual purpose: the lawsuits intimidated and silenced opposition voices while distracting public attention from issues such as a declining economy – particularly massive layoffs in the garment manufacturing sector that mainly affected women – and land seizures that continued to take place throughout the country.

Forced evictions affected Cambodia's population as a whole (the vast majority are ethnic Khmer and Buddhist), but indigenous peoples, who are mainly animist, were targeted in areas where their traditional lands were slated for development by resource companies (see case study: 'If we lose the land we lose everything'). The government continued to ignore a 2001 law that grants ownership to people living on public land for five years or more, and makes special provisions for collective land rights for indigenous peoples. On 4 September 2009, the government pulled out of a World Bank-funded programme aimed at sorting out land titles. In a 7 September speech, widely quoted in the media, Prime Minister Hun Sen said that cooperating with the World Bank on the programme, 'was difficult because it was complicated and had too many conditions'. Although the programme had issued more than 1.1 million land titles in rural areas since 2002, David Pred, founder of NGO Bridges Across Borders, said in an interview that many titles exist only on paper and the process had failed to halt illegal evictions. He accused donors of refusing to use their leverage to stand up to corrupt Cambodian officials. In a 13 July 2009 report, the World Bank itself noted 'a particular disconnect between institutional, legal and policy achievements and insecurity of land tenure for the poor, especially in urban areas, and indigenous peoples'.

On 29 December 2009, the CPP-controlled National Assembly passed a controversial law allowing the government to expropriate land for development, despite complaints by human rights groups and opposition members that the vague language of the law would allow it to be used by government officials to force people from their land illegally. Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that Cambodia granted a licence on 23 December to a Vietnamese company to search for bauxite deposits in Mondulkiri province. No information has been released about specific sites for exploration, but Mondulkiri is home to several indigenous communities who could be threatened if bauxite deposits are found on their traditional lands.

While Buddhism is the state religion, Cambodia's Constitution provides for freedom of religion. Laws and policies 'contributed to the generally free practice of religion', according to the IRFR 2009. Freedom House, however, pointed to discrimination against ethnic Cham Muslims in its 2009 Freedom in the World report. 'The Chams have come under new suspicion from the ethnic Khmer majority in the wake of Islamic terrorist attacks in Southeast Asia and elsewhere', according to the report, which also refers to discrimination against Cambodia's ethnic Vietnamese minority. Followers of the nineteenth-century Muslim leader Imam San, a small sect within the Cham minority, said they experienced discrimination from fellow Chams, who claim they are not true Muslims, according to an article in the Asia Times, an online news source. The sect's 37,000 members blend Islamic practices with animist ceremonies, and they pray once a week rather than five times a day.

In December 2009, the UN-backed tribunal that is trying former leaders of the Khmer Rouge officially acknowledged atrocities committed against the Cham and Vietnamese minorities as genocide. The Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia, which is a hybrid court combining Cambodian and international law, handed down genocide charges against four former leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime who were awaiting trial. In an interview, Youk Chhang, who heads the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, an NGO, welcomed the charges and pointed to massacres of both minority groups, including one incident where the Khmer Rouge wiped out an entire community of Cham who lived on an island. For their part, two members of a Cham delegation who travelled to the court to take part in a forum for 'civil parties' (victims given a voice in the trials by lawyers representing them as groups) said in interviews that they supported the court's decision. Mok Sitha, 69, who said she lost 10 family members under the Khmer Rouge, said, 'I agree with the court. They should charge them more.' Tolosh Kor Seum, 41, also said he agreed that the Khmer Rouge leaders should be charged with genocide. He added that he was taking part in the trial as a civil party because he wanted to contribute to the historical record to pass along the next generation. Tolosh said, 'I want to let them know how many Muslim people have been killed and how they have been treated during the Khmer Rouge.'

The year ended with the widely condemned deportation to China of 20 Uighurs who had applied for asylum in Cambodia after fleeing China following the riots in Xinjiang province in July 2009. The UN, the US embassy, and organizations including Amnesty International (AI) and HRW issued statements urging Cambodia not to deport the asylum-seekers and condemning the move when it did. Human rights groups accused the government of violating international law, pointing out that Cambodia had ratified the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. Cambodia has thus committed itself to the principle of non-refoulement, whereby states are barred from returning a refugee or an asylum-seeker to a country where that person faces a serious risk of persecution. China has been accused of detaining, torturing and executing Uighur asylum-seekers upon return, even in cases where the individual had gained refugee status.

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