The Cambodian government is under fire this week after Amnesty International released a report on November 14 saying that since 2020, they have forcibly removed over 10,000 families from the iconic Angor Wat temple complex, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1992. The report also accused UNESCO of failing its UN mandates by not intervening or protecting the rights of Angor residents.
The relocations are part of a years-long “preservation” plan where the Cambodian government has been dismantling settlements throughout the archeological park — a site that stretches over 400 acres, houses thousands of temple ruins, and hosts at least 112 villages. Authorities said they are trying to protect the ruins by removing “squatters” and informal settlements, claiming they are harming the environment and overusing water resources.
According to the report, Cambodian officials harassed and intimidated over 40,000 people, making them move from the temple park to “barren” ill-equipped relocation sites for little or no compensation. Authorities reportedly threatened imprisonment for anyone who refused.
The relocation site itself is causing controversy as well. The land of one site, located on the outskirts of the town of Run Ta Ek, was taken from citizens in 2005 with no compensation after the state repossessed it. When news broke in November 2022 that the site would be used to house displaced people from Angkor Wat, over 200 families pitched tents in the area in protest. They have still not received compensation.
One resident named Pren told Voice of Democracy (VOD), a now-defunct Cambodian news outlet, “This is an injustice because I am the real landowner. They took my land and gave it to illegal Angkor residents. I am not happy.”
For decades, there have been communities living in settlements in the areas surrounding Angkor Wat. Most of these do not have official permission from the state and have been deemed “illegal” by the authorities because the land around Angkor Wat is a protected zone, so new development is technically prohibited.
However, in 2005, UNESCO conducted a survey investigating whether the residences and development projects in the park were a threat to the World Heritage site and found the protections were “satisfactory” — though it did recommend the Cambodian authority clarify its legal infrastructure regarding property rights in the park. This did not happen, and now the UNESCO mandates are being used to justify the ongoing displacement of Angkor Wat residents.
Much of the conflict comes because of the informal nature of land ownership in Cambodia. Most people don’t have official land deeds but have been living in the same area for generations. It is incredibly difficult to secure land deeds in Cambodia, which makes the population especially vulnerable to land repossession and displacement.
The move — over an hour from the temple site — has stripped many of the families of their livelihoods, as many earned income from either tilling rice fields in the area or by selling goods or services to tourists. As a result, residents have said that the resettlement villages are marked by joblessness and hunger.
Because of the rushed relocation process, the settlements have little or no infrastructure, including roads, running water, electricity, or employment opportunities. In most cases, residents were forced to dismantle their homes in Angkor Wat and then use the material to rebuild in the settlements — though often, the supplies don’t survive the deconstruction process.
Conditions in the relocation sites are so grim that some residents have abandoned their new homes altogether.
One Angkor Wat resident whose home and business were dismantled told VOD, “I agree that our constructions should be removed, but it is too fast. They’re doing it so quickly, I am stunned.”
One resident interviewed in the Amnesty International report said: “They said it is not compulsory, but if you don’t do it, you will lose your land … so we volunteered.”
Another interviewee, a woman named Dewi, said that officials used UNESCO to justify the relocation program. She was told, “UNESCO wants you to leave — we are afraid that UNESCO will withdraw the site from World Heritage Status — so you must go.” She added, “I want to ask UNESCO why do they evict us? We never caused harm to the temples. When I was a child, we played games and climbed and cleaned at Angkor Wat.”
In response to the report, Cambodian government spokesman Pen Bona said the report was “not right,” claiming that the relocations were “voluntary” and were done to adhere to rules set down by UNESCO, which banned structures or people living on the site.
However, in interviews conducted by Amnesty International, the vast majority of respondents said they did not want to leave. The report reads, “almost all … described being evicted or pressured to leave Angkor following intimidation, harassment, threats, and acts of violence from Cambodian authorities.”
Montse Ferrer, Deputy Regional Director for Research at Amnesty International, said:
Cambodian authorities cruelly uprooted families who have lived in Angkor for several generations, forcing them to live hand to mouth at ill-prepared relocation sites. They must immediately cease forcibly evicting people and violating international human rights law.
Following intense international criticism, UNESCO said it “is deeply concerned about the population relocation program in Angkor,” adding that it “never requested, nor supported, nor was a party to this program.” They have since asked Cambodian authorities to take “corrective measures” to remedy the situation.
In an interview with the Guardian, outreach director Naly Pilorge at Licadho, a Cambodian human rights organization, further criticized UNESCO’s potential complacency in the displacement, saying: “Instead of empowering these communities to gather and raise their concerns, UNESCO is pretending that forced evictions aren’t occurring under their noses.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Angkor Wat drew over 2.6 million tourists annually. It is considered the largest religious complex in the world. Cambodia is seeking to significantly increase tourism as a way to economically recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
While 10,000 families have been relocated, many are still fighting to stay on their land. There have been countless protests over this ongoing displacement over the last three years — though this dissent often comes with consequences.
The body that manages the archaeological park, APSARA, is currently engaged in a lawsuit against seven residents who refused to leave Angkor Wat, accusing them of “inciting and obstructing public work” on October 30 after they protested when officials came to tear down their homes.
In the meantime, Licadho anticipates continued relocations and displacement, even amid the increased international pressure.