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Asia Rights Activists Highlight Risks for Development Opponents

  • Ron Corben

A Boeung Kak lake protester cries as she confronts a line of riot police officers during a protest rally against land eviction near the prime minister's residence, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 2, 2013.

A Boeung Kak lake protester cries as she confronts a line of riot police officers during a protest rally against land eviction near the prime minister's residence, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 2, 2013.

Human rights advocates in Southeast Asia are warning about increasing dangers to environmental and community organizers, following several high-profile killings in recent years. They say Asia's economic growth is increasing conflicts with local communities and endangering advocates who oppose big development projects.

Police scuffled with protestors, mostly women, in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh earlier this month. The demonstrators were resisting eviction from their homes to make way for a luxury housing estate.

Such protests are becoming more common in Cambodia. This year Amnesty International said in its annual report that Cambodia has experienced a deterioration of freedom of expression and assembly, in part because of forced evictions and land grabbing.

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDF) said Cambodia’s government has granted some 2.2 million hectares of land concessions to more than 200 companies. Other groups say the figure could be up to 4.0 million hectares - or one fifth of the land under cultivation.

“In Cambodia local community representatives, human rights defenders activists, journalists, even parliamentarians are routinely threatened and with legal action for defending their homes, their land, their forests," noted Shalmali Guttal, a senior researcher at the non-government organization, Focus on Global South. " Land, environment related conflicts have sharply escalated over the past several years.”

The protests mark a trend across South East Asia, where an investment boon in agriculture, manufacturing and real estate is reshaping economies and communities.

Countries in the region have posted annual growth of seven to eight percent in recent years, lifting millions out of poverty. But much of the new investment is being driven by big development projects, many of which have foreign backers.

Rights advocates such as Shalmali Guttal say the growth and development often come at a steep cost to local communities.

“Human rights violations, environmental destruction, and rising inequality - it’s an intrinsic part of the development model," Guttal said. "So Asia might be the engine of growth and the one region that will help the rest of the world to get past the global financial crisis or come out of the doldrums but it’s at a huge cost for communities, the environment and rights in Asia.”

In Burma, conflict over the Letpadaung Copper Mine Project, a joint venture between the military and Chinese investors, led to arrest warrants in June against three activists opposing the project. The mine has displaced 26 villages and led to the confiscation of over 2,800 hectares.

Human Rights Watch’s Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said the opening of Burma’s economy has triggered a rush by the country’s elites to profit off land and development deals.

“They were out of the global mainstream all of a sudden they’re the people with all the connections and all have the ability to get things done in Burma," Robertson noted. "These are people who are cashing in now in order to solidify the status of their family for a generation or many generations.”

Earlier this year Laos came under the international spotlight after the disappearance of acclaimed community development worker Sombath Somphone. He had played a major key role in organizing a “peoples” forum during last year’s Asia Europe Summit. His whereabouts remain unknown.

In Thailand environmental rights lawyer Srisuwan Janya said more than 20 activists over the past 12 years have been killed for campaigning against projects or local developments. Srisuwan points to close ties between local business and political figures for the violence.

He said activists who are campaigning against such projects face great danger and local communities are not having their interests addressed.

Activist groups are calling for the international community to play a greater role in preventing development abuses and protecting community organizers across Southeast Asia. But they acknowledged that with so much politically and economically at stake in some of the region’s biggest development projects, those who oppose them will continue to face risks for speaking out.