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Victims of Cambodian forced evictions speak out

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Some villagers are shot. Some are arrested. Others are forcibly taken from homes. That’s the fate of growing numbers of Cambodians being forcibly evicted by authorities, witnesses said on Thursday.

Dang Saren, 12, a member of one of many evicted families, plays with his neighbour in Toul Sambo, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh September 7, 2009, while his father works as a taxi driver in the capital. REUTERS/Chor Sokunthea

A period of unprecedented growth since 2004 has boosted land prices in Cambodia, particularly in the capital Phnom Penh, leading to a spike in the number of forced evictions and triggering fierce criticism of the government by aid donors.

Victims raised their concerns on Thursday at the offices of World Vision, one of several aid groups which say the problem is spiraling out of control.

Buddhist monk Loun Savath recounted how four farmers were shot in his district in Siem Reap, a province that has seen a boom in tourism, including new golf resorts near the 12th-century temples of Angkor Wat.

He said 43 villagers were in jail after attempting to defend their 475 hectares from armed men in March.

“When the price of land rises, the police shoot at farmers in the rice fields and accuse them of stealing others’ paddy,” said Savath. “They shot us. But at the court they charged us as farmers for defaming them (the authorities),” he added.

Land ownership is a controversial issue in Cambodia, where legal documents were destroyed and state institutions collapsed under the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s and the civil war that followed.

The World Bank joined with other aid donors in July to ask the government to halt forced evictions and the problem was raised again by its vice-president for East Asia and the Pacific Region, James Adams, during his visit last month.

“Before we have land. Now some of us have broken legs,” said Savath, 29. “Some are in jail. Their wives have to sell cattle to buy food.”

Saren Ket, 48, said his community lived on 769 hectares in the northeastern province of Kratie before they were evicted after authorities signed a deal for a private firm to plant rubber. He said his community has nothing left.

“The authorities keep talking about poverty reduction and to generate more revenue for the state. But we are already suffering. What will happen to future generations,” said Ket.

The World Bank had provided funding of $24.3 million for a land management and administration project from 2002 to 2009, and an estimated 1.1 million land titles were issued. But Cambodia pulled out of the program, its prime minister said this week.

Prime Minister Hun Sen said the World Bank’s administrative procedures were too complicated and Cambodia no longer wished to be part of the project.

Cambodia’s embassy in the United States released a statement through its foreign ministry in which it denied any wrongdoing.

“They are...professional squatters who take illegal possession of state or private land and then demand compensation before moving to occupy another public or private land,” said the release.

Editing by Jason Szep