Heng Chantha was 13 when she was shot and killed by a Cambodian soldier in Kratie province’s Broma village about three years ago. Armed with AK-47s, security forces cleared her village on May 16, 2012, to make way for a rubber concession linked to the Russian-owned Casotim company, leaving Heng Chantha dead in their wake.
The incident happened three years ago this month, and in that time nobody has been held accountable for her death. Instead, what followed was a farce remarkable by even the pitifully low standards of the Cambodian justice system.
The villagers at Broma had resisted eviction from their land, fighting back with rudimentary homemade slingshots and bows and arrows. Cambodia’s government decided to use this for its benefit, tying it in with the activities of democracy activist and radio station owner Mam Sonando—who had been critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen for some years and had recently interviewed a Cambodian activist looking to bring a case against Mr. Hun Sen in the international courts.
Mr. Sonando was arrested, detained and later imprisoned for nearly six months for inciting the villagers to secede. At his trial and subsequent appeals, the charges against him were exposed as little more than a political move. The activist radio station owner was released with a suspended sentence on a lesser conviction, seen by some as a means to keep him quiet in the run-up to Cambodia’s 2013 national election.
Mr. Hun Sen took aim at other critical voices in the aftermath of the incident in Broma. Chan Soveth—a leading human rights activist with a staunch record of standing up for the rights of poor, rural communities—was threatened publicly in a speech by the prime minister, accused of assisting one of the secessionist leaders. The case against him was dropped months later amidst pressure from rights groups, donors and foreign governments, who derided the accusations against him as baseless, politically motivated and a serious challenge to legitimate NGO activities.
Land grabs involving politically connected tycoons, security forces and foreign-backed companies have resulted in hundreds of thousands of people made landless over the last decade. With no transparency surrounding land deals and a lack of effective taxation in the country, the pitifully small amount of money paid to the government to acquire land leases never reaches those at the bottom.
Land grabbing has reached such a degree that group of lawyers acting on behalf of victims claim the land grabbing constitutes a crime against humanity and filed a complaint to the International Criminal Court in 2014.
So three years after the death of Heng Chantha, let’s remember her and those who have died at the hands of Cambodia’s security forces. Meanwhile, land grabbing continues apace and impunity in Cambodia—if you’re rich and well-connected—prevails.
Neil Loughlin is a former technical assistant to local rights group Adhoc and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in political science at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.