Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Nearly three years ago, a few hundred small-scale cassava farmers migrated from a district on Cambodia's eastern border to Kratie, a neighbouring province, where they heard there was farmland available in a village called Broma.
The move was not unusual in this predominantly rural country, where land tenure is shaky and poor farmers often uproot themselves for a chance at acquiring land.
"Villagers went there expecting to make their living from farming. They just wanted to survive," explained Bun Sothea, 22, one of the migrants.
But what supposedly happened next was extraordinary. According to the Cambodian government, the villagers allegedly banded together into a separatist movement and decided to "secede" from the Southeast Asian nation.
This so-called secession culminated in a violent battle between villagers and security forces, in which soldiers shot and killed a 14-year-old girl who had been hiding underneath her house.
After the Khmer Rouge abolished private property and instituted forced communal farming, the country - which never had a strong tradition of land ownership in the first place - was left in economic shambles.
Six months later, a total of 14 people have now been prosecuted and convicted for spearheading the so-called Broma separatist movement, including Mam Sonando, an elderly French-Cambodian who owns one of the few independent radio stations here. He was sentenced earlier this month to 20 years in prison.
But rights groups, internationals observers, and the villagers themselves say that the "secessionist plot" is a convenient fiction manufactured by the Cambodian government to justify the death of the girl, Heng Chantha, during a forced eviction.
The farmland where the villagers had settled was on the edge of a 15,000-hectare plantation that the government had granted to an agroindustrial firm.
The company allegedly attempted to evict them starting in late 2011 so that it could plant rubber saplings. When villagers resisted, hundreds of police and soldiers sealed off the village and called in a helicopter for backup before storming in-and shooting Chantha in the process.
Both rights workers and villagers insist that arrested radio presenter Sonando did not even have a connection to the events in Broma, other than broadcasting stories about them on his radio station.
"This entire court case was just for hiding the death of the girl during the combat against villagers," says Am Sam Ath, the technical supervisor for Licadho, a human rights group that campaigns against land grabs and forced evictions. "There is no actual evidence proving that there was an insurrection."
Sam Ath, who was blocked from approaching the village on the day of the battle but was able to observe from a distance, said that 1,000 soldiers, police and military police officers had surrounded Broma in all directions. "They tied red cloths to their heads like they were about to go to war."
Although most outsiders still associate this Southeast Asian country with land mines, civil war, and the depredations of the Khmer Rouge regime, the biggest issue facing many Cambodians is one that gets little traction in the international media: land tenure.
After the Khmer Rouge abolished private property and instituted forced communal farming, the country - which never had a strong tradition of land ownership in the first place - was left in an economic shambles.
Although the ultra-Maoist regime was ousted in 1979, an additional decade of Vietnamese-backed Communist rule meant that private property rights were not re-established until the early 1990s.
Since then, despite a few high-profile land titling drives and the creation of the Land Law in 2001, many Cambodians still do not have titles to their homes or farmland, even if they have lived there for decades.
Meanwhile, in a bid to speed development, the government has sold off vast swathes of land to agribusinesses for large-scale farming. Most of these plantations, or other economic land concessions, are located in areas where smallholders had farmed rice or other crops for years.
Cambodia's crackdown on land grab protests
According to Licadho, over 2.1 million hectares of land have been leased to corporations over the past 20 years, "transferred mostly from subsistence farmers into the hands of industrial agriculture firms".
Another 1.9 million hectares have been leased to mining companies, meaning that private companies hold nearly a quarter of Cambodia's land. The group estimates that 400,000 people have had their land grabbed, or are at risk of losing their land.
"The seriousness of Cambodia's land problem cannot be overestimated," says Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International's researcher on Cambodia. "Tens of thousands of people are affected. Both urban and rural communities not only face losing their homes and livelihoods through forced evictions and land grabs, but are also threatened with harassment, arrest, legal action and violence for peacefully standing up for their rights."
In a report published last month, Surya Subedi, the UN's special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia, wrote: "There are well documented, serious and widespread human rights violations associated with land concessions that need to be addressed through remediation."
He said it was hard to see what benefits ordinary Cambodians had actually gained through the granting of concessions, which is often done with no transparency.
The government has expressed regret for the death of Heng Chantha, but defends its land policies as necessary for the country's economic development - and branded its critics in the West as hypocrites. In a scathing October 18 letter to a British peeress who had published an editorial critical of land issues in Cambodia, the country's foreign ministry accused her of writing from a "comfortable sofa in London drinking cappuccino, if not martini".
"Did the UK or Europe or America get to be industrialised nations by planting potatoes or raising sheep's in their own backyard?" asked the ministry's spokesman, Koy Kuong. "Perhaps you should read objectively your own country's development history before preaching to other countries. Your development views are so condescending to us."
But it seems clear that the issue of land rights is becoming ever more politically sensitive, as Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People's Party face elections next year. And the frequent, occasionally violent land protests in the capital over the past two years are a major black eye for a government seeking to emphasise the development achievements of the past two decades.
In this environment, Hun Sen has vacillated between making concessions to some villagers while cracking down on the most vocal protesters, casting into sharp relief the government's fear of broad-based discontent over its land policies. Under pressure, he put a moratorium on granting economic land concessions in May - although critics charged that a number of large plantations were grandfathered in.
Crueler than before
At the same time, the consequences for protesters who fall afoul of the government have been harsher than ever.
101 East: No Place like Home
After a violent eviction in January, 18 women and children from the Borei Keila neighborhood in Phnom Penh were detained without charge at a "social affairs centre" with a record of human rights abuses. Another group of female protesters from the Boeng Kak neighborhood were jailed for a month after a protest. Both communities had lost land to powerful companies aligned with the government.
A number of other land protesters across the country have also been harassed, summarily jailed, and even shot.
The villagers who had been living in Broma have now been forced to leave, with some going back to their hometowns, others migrating to Thailand to look for work, and others taking jobs as maids or cleaners. Six village residents were sentenced to prison terms alongside Mam Sonando, while another seven had sentences commuted after cooperating with prosecutors.
Sonando, whose trial uncovered no evidence that he was a secessionist, and who has already fallen ill multiple times while in detention, is now facing the possibility of living out his days in jail. "We will keep on appealing because he received injustice. He is innocent," says his wife, Dinn Phannara.
Villager Sothea says she has been forced to leave behind her home and cassava farm. Her brother, Bun Ratha, a land campaigner who has been accused of masterminding the secessionist plot, is in hiding. If caught, he will be jailed for 30 years.
Source: Al Jazeera