PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — Rights group Amnesty International on Tuesday accused Cambodia of breaking international law through the eviction of 10,000 families from around the Angkor Wat temple complex.
Phnom Penh has over the past year increased the relocation of families living within the sprawling UNESCO world heritage site to a new community being built on former rice paddies 25 kilometres (15 miles) away since last year.
Officials have long maintained that families are moving voluntarily, but in a report released Tuesday Amnesty says many are receiving “direct and subtle threats” to move.
“They must immediately cease forcibly evicting people and violating international human rights law,” said Montse Ferrer of Amnesty.
Cambodian government spokesman Pen Bona said the report was “not right”, insisting that the relocation of villagers was done on a “voluntary” basis and in line with UNESCO rules.
UNESCO said it was “deeply concerned” by the report, which comes on the eve of a regular intergovernmental conference on Angkor at the culture body’s headquarters in Paris.
The temple complex dating back to the ninth century is Cambodia’s top tourist attraction, and pre-pandemic drew more than two million foreigners every year.
The tourists spawned a micro-economy of stallholders, food and souvenir sellers and beggars, and the local population exploded from an estimated 20,000 in the early 1990s to about 120,000 by 2013.
Cambodian authorities say they are acting to protect the ruins by moving squatters whose informal settlements are damaging the local environment by producing rubbish and overusing water resources.
Officials say that only unauthorised settlements — often ramshackle huts without proper sewage, running water or in some cases electricity — have been targeted.
The Amnesty report calls on UNESCO to condemn Penh Phnom’s actions and warns of further escalation if it should fail to do so.
“Unless there is serious pushback from UNESCO, conservation efforts may increasingly be weaponised by states to their own ends, at the expense of human rights,” Ferrer said.
The rights group alleges that officials from Apsara National Authority– the body which manages the archaeological park — and the land ministry are using UNESCO to justify the relocations.
One resident said Cambodian authorities told her explicitly that “UNESCO wants you to leave” or lose the site’s world heritage status.
At least seven villagers who live around Angkor Wat have been sued by Apsara, for allegedly inciting and obstructing public work, according court summons seen by AFP.
The lawsuits were filed after hundreds of villagers protested against an attempt by Apsara officials in August to demolish allegedly illegal structures inside the archaeological park.
“UNESCO is deeply concerned about the population relocation programme in Angkor carried out by the Cambodian authorities,” the UN body said in a statement, adding that it had “never requested, nor supported, nor was a party to this programme”.
UNESCO called on Cambodia to take “corrective measures” and to respond to Amnesty’s allegations in its next report on Angkor.
Government spokesman Pen Bona said the government was acting in line with UNESCO rules.
“Cambodia must respect conditions imposed by UNESCO,” he told AFP, adding that the conditions required that there were no structures, constructions, or people living at the site.
“There could be a few villagers who may not be happy and they (Amnesty) interviewed them and said that the government conducted forced evictions,” he said.