Cambodia’s relocation of people from UNESCO site raises concerns

Cambodia, Apr. 12: It’s been more than a year since Yem Srey Pin moved with her family from the village where she was born on Cambodia’s Angkor UNESCO World Heritage site to Run Ta Ek, a dusty new settlement about 25 kilometres (15 miles) away.

A tattered Cambodian flag flaps gently in the scorching midday sun on her corner lot, its depiction of the Angkor Wat temple barely still visible, while her brother scoops water from a clay cistern onto a neighbour’s cow that he tends during the day.

Hers is one of about 5,000 families relocated from the sprawling archaeological site, one of Southeast Asia’s top tourist draws, by Cambodian authorities in an ongoing program that Amnesty International has condemned as a “gross violation of international human rights law.” Another 5,000 families are still due to be moved.

The allegations have drawn strong expressions of concern from UNESCO and a spirited rebuttal from Cambodian authorities, who say they’re doing nothing more than protecting the heritage land from illegal squatters.

Yem Srey Pin’s single-room home, its reused corrugated steel siding perforated by rust and old nail holes, is a far cry better than the makeshift tent she lived in with her husband and five children when they first arrived, which did little to protect from the monsoon rains and blew down in the winds.

And their 600-square-meter (6,500-square-foot) property is significantly bigger than the 90-square-meter (1,000-square-foot) plot they occupied illegally in the village of Khvean on the Angkor site.

But the 35-year-old is also in debt from building the new house. Her husband finds less construction work nearby and his wages are lower, and there are no wild fruits or vegetables she can forage, nor rice paddies where she can collect crabs to sell at her mother’s stand.

“After more than a year here I haven’t been able to save any money and I haven’t earned anything,” she said, as her 12-year-old son rocked her 8-month-old daughter in a hammock in front of a fan to take the edge off midday heat nearing 40 degrees Celsius (topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit). “Living here is just hand to mouth because the income we do have goes to pay for the rice, food and my children’s school.”

The Angkor site is one of the largest archaeological sites in the world, spread across some 400 square kilometers (155 square miles) in northwestern Cambodia. It contains the ruins of Khmer Empire capitals from the 9th to 15th centuries, including the temple of Angkor Wat, featured on several Cambodian banknotes, such as the 2,000 riel note depicting rice farmers working fields around the temple, as well as the country’s flag.

UNESCO calls it one of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia, and it is critical to Cambodia’s tourism industry.

When it was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 1992, it was named a “living heritage site” whose local population observed ancestral traditions and cultural practices that have disappeared elsewhere.

Still, UNESCO at the time noted that Angkor was under “dual pressures” from some 100,000 inhabitants in 112 historic settlements who “constantly try to expand their dwelling areas,” and from encroachment from the nearby town of Siem Reap. (AP)

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