World Habitat Day in Cambodia: When Clearing Garbage is Political Dissent

World Habitat Day (WHD) is a significant date on the calendar of many activist groups, grassroots communities, and NGOs around the world. It falls each year on the first Monday of October and acts as a focus for protests and advocacy for the right to decent housing.

The UN describes it as a day to “reflect on the state of our towns and cities, and on the basic right of all to adequate shelter”. Unfortunately, the UN’s claim, that WHD “also reminds us we all have the power and the responsibility to shape the future of our cities and towns” does not ring true in many parts of the globe.

This blog post examines the challenges facing Cambodia’s grassroots communities, and local rights groups supporting them, when they try to use UN days like WHD to protest against rights abuses, notably land grabbing. They employ new media and ICT to document and publicise their protests as well as harassment and violence by authorities.

But first some background to Cambodia’s deepening human rights crackdown and why people are protesting about land rights.

This small southeast Asian nation  (population 16 million)  still bears the scars of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime that killed almost two million people between 1975 and 1979. The Khmer Rouge banned private properly and destroyed all land titles. Since the end of the civil war in the early 1990s, violent land grabs by corrupt politicians and politically-connected tycoons have been one of Cambodia’s biggest human rights problems.

The country, ruled by a former Khmer Rouge commander for more than 30 years, descended further into authoritarianism over the last two years making it difficult for grassroots communities and activists to occupy public spaces.

Previously vibrant protests and public gatherings celebrating international days ground to a halt over the last two years following an uptick in threats, intimidation, arrests and violence, including a brutal attack on a rights worker during a 2016 WHD demonstration in Phnom Penh.

Digital Solutions

The crackdown has seen mounting numbers of political prisoners, a ban on the main opposition party, the silencing of critical media and legislation criminalising critical online expression.

It has left civil society groups scrambling for new ideas on how to advocate for rights in a drastically changed environment. Increased use of new media and ICTs by activists and communities whose voices are no longer heard in the media is seen as one solution — and it’s a solution that donors are willing to fund.

But there are several drawbacks.

One of the most immediate is the increased danger of arrest for posting critical comments on social media. More than a dozen people have been arrested in the last year for posting on Cambodia’s most popular platform, Facebook (Prime Minister Hun Sen recently boasted that authorities can locate someone posting on Facebook within six minutes!).

Secondly, some of the most active rural communities who regularly petition authorities for change are made up of mostly elderly, impoverished and uneducated farmers (about one million youths have emigrated for work). Many of them are illiterate, have difficulties with digital technology and live in areas with poor internet connectivity

Finally, building up the new media and ICT competence of activists and communities is time consuming and requires resources which can be a distraction from other urgent tasks including developing new tactics and forging alliances to preserve the little civil society space that remains.  

Nonetheless, new media and ICTs have become essential tools for safe communications (WhatsApp and Telegram are widely used) and for informing people of what is happening.  Activists particularly use WhatsApp and closed Facebook groups to spread information and express dissent. In some cases authorities have had to show  restraint — like after the 2016 WHD attack on a rights worker— when videos of abuses have spread on social media, providing some protection to those targeted, who often face criminal charges, despite being on the receiving end of the violence.

Picking Up Garbage

The most active grassroots communities and rights groups in Cambodia view WHD and other UN international days, like Human Rights Day, as opportunities to mobilise people and test how much civil society space remains. However, increasing state-violence, including the assassination of a government critic in 2016 and increasing surveillance and harassment of communities has made large public gatherings extremely rare.

Since 2017, authorities have required communities meeting with NGOs or planning public gathering to notify several layers of government days in advance. Even seemingly harmless activities like rural workshops on chicken farming have been closed down amid accusations of unlawful political activity.

In keeping with this year’s WHD theme of “municipal solid waste management” —  several communities in Phnom Penh planned to walk across the city picking up garbage along the way before delivering a petition to city hall.

That plan was abandoned due to threats of reprisals. Even picking up rubbish is considered too political for Cambodian authorities — much like chicken raising.

Instead, the most active communities around the country organised small events in their own backyards — even daring to march around and pick up trash — but even some of those fell foul of local police.

Any public action calling for political or social change is deemed a threat by Cambodia’s de facto one-party state. In future blog posts I will explore further what role new media and ICT can play in keeping civil society space open in an increasingly repressive and authoritarian regime.