Residents at Angkor Wat have been forced by officials to “volunteer” to leave in the name of preserving Cambodia’s most popular tourist attraction, an Amnesty International report found.
Cambodian authorities are forcing longtime residents living in Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple complex to resettlement sites where they face poor living conditions and lack of income, according to an Amnesty International report published on Friday.
The international rights group says that in the name of conserving the UNESCO World Heritage Site, locals are being pushed out, devastating their livelihoods and violating their rights.
“Whole communities are disappearing or breaking up. We watched one family dismantle parts of their own house and move to the main resettlement site, all in one day,” Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Campaigns, told VICE World News.
Amnesty International is urging authorities to “immediately stop this violation of human rights” as it shared its findings from interviews with more than 35 people around Angkor Wat and Run Ta Ek, one of the two resettlement sites for displaced residents.
“Angkor Wat is a national treasure and a source of pride for Cambodia. Its living heritage is crucial and should also factor in the respect and promotion of human rights,” Hah said.
The Angkor Archaeological Park is Cambodia’s most popular tourist attraction and has temples dating back to the ninth century. It was listed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1992 and welcomed around two million visitors a year before the pandemic. The Angkor Wat temple complex holds the Guinness World Record for the largest religious structure ever built.
Located around the religious complex are villages housing an estimated 100,000 people, many of whom have lived there for generations and rely on the local tourism industry. But these villages have in recent years faced eviction as authorities vowed to “preserve” the landmark.
Officials from the APSARA National Authority, a government body tasked with managing the site, are known to use a combination of harassment and coercion to make residents “volunteer” to leave, said the Amnesty report.
“Three times they returned and each time I said ‘no, I won’t go.’ But now I am going. I am scared,” one resident was quoted as saying in the Amnesty report. The report also noted that none of the residents interviewed were “engaged in a process of genuine consultation” on the topic of resettlement.
Officials also threatened that residents would not receive compensation if they refused to leave, the report added—echoing a threat previously made by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
In October, Hun Sen issued a “last warning” to residents in the park: “I am letting them know that this is the last time they will be asked to leave politely. When the time comes, we will not give them a single riel and will remove them from the area,” he said, adding that UNESCO was pressuring the Cambodian government to safeguard the park.
In its 2008 decision, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee expressed “serious concern” about “uncontrolled urban expansion” in and around the Angkor heritage site, but the issue was not mentioned in the UN body’s latest decision released in 2021.
The UNESCO World Heritage Centre told VICE World News that the relocation program should be “based on human rights” and take into consideration the livelihoods, social inclusion, and sustainable development of affected communities.
“UNESCO or the World Heritage Committee have never called for population displacements in Angkor,” said a spokesperson of the World Heritage Centre. “Following the announcement by the Cambodian government of its population relocation program, [the] UNESCO Office in Phnom Penh immediately advised Cambodia of the need to work closely with local communities.”
The spokesperson added that the World Heritage Committee will discuss the issue at their annual meeting in September.
Despite the government’s justification that the relocation was necessary to preserve the temple complex, those who regularly visit Angkor Wat say that the lack of residents at the site is a loss for Angkor Wat’s unique culture, which tourists have long been attracted to.
“If they live there, they can continue to worship and make the temple complex alive and active,” local tour guide Sam Kimseur told VICE World News. “If they move away from Angkor, it’s just Angkor Wat, but [with] no soul. Like without a heart.”
Last week, some 150 people gathered in Phnom Penh to submit a petition on behalf of 10,000 families in the Angkor Archaeological park, calling for the government to return their land titles and fairly compensate those affected by evictions.
For many Angkor residents who rely on tourism for their livelihoods, relocation comes at an immense cost. A resident told The Guardian last year that she had pawned her family jewelry and used her savings to start a business renting costumes to tourists at Angkor Wat, only to find out that her shop would be removed by the end of the year.
“I sold all my possessions to start this business, but now it’s going to be gone,” she said.
As of September last year, almost 600 families had moved from the park to Run Ta Ek eco-village, a resettlement site located about 25 kilometers away, according to the APSARA National Authority. The site is expected to house 6,000 families, Hun Sen said in September while announcing plans to develop the area with infrastructure to support the new residents.
However, residents who have settled in Run Ta Ek told local news outlet VOD that they struggled with unemployment and hunger since their relocation. Some have even moved away from their new homes to rent in the city for better work prospects.
Hah from Amnesty International said that the resettlement site, which does not have adequate housing, food, and employment opportunities, is “not fit for purpose.”
“What’s clear to us after our research is that these evictions, which authorities have described as voluntary, are anything but,” Hah said. “They are forced evictions in disguise and the Cambodian government should stop them immediately.”