“No one wants to leave their home,” says Amnesty International in a report published Tuesday on their website. These words are those of a resident of Angkor, living for more than 70 years on the UNESCO World Heritage site and forced to leave her home by the Cambodian authorities in the name of “conservation”. The approximately 400km² of the protected site of Angkor, classified as a UNESCO world heritage site since 1992, are the home of nearly 120,000 people (in 2013 according to AFP figures). Today the temples of Angkor are threatened by mass tourism but also by the pressure that the inhabitants exert on the environment, whether it is waste management or the ever-increasing use of the water.
For its report, Amnesty interviewed 100 residents of Angkor temples about questionable practices by Cambodian police. The organization's findings are clear: "The Cambodian authorities have cruelly uprooted families who had lived in Angkor for several generations, forcing them to live day to day on poorly equipped sites." The testimonies collected by Amnesty show a policy of pressure carried out by the Cambodian authorities who leave the inhabitants no other choice than to “leave or join the resettlement program”.
“They said it wasn’t obligatory, but that if we don’t leave, we lose our land… So we volunteered,” a resident explained to Amnesty International investigators.
The NGO therefore chose to directly challenge the organization dependent on the United Nations, calling on it to act. “If UNESCO is determined to place human rights at the heart of all its actions, it must firmly condemn forced evictions as an instrument of management of a world heritage site, and use its influence to demand that the Cambodian government put an end to it and press for a public and independent investigation,” writes Amnesty.
On Wednesday, the day after the publication of the Amnesty investigation, UNESCO published a response. The heritage conservation organization says it is “deeply concerned by the allegations contained in the Amnesty International report” and denies any involvement in “the program of displacement of populations in Angkor carried out by the Cambodian authorities”.
In its press release, UNESCO calls on the Cambodian authorities to take immediate measures to respect the rights of residents and “not to carry out forced evictions in Angkor”. Finally, the organization announces that it has brought forward the deadlines for the new national report on the state of conservation of the Angkor site. Scheduled for February 1, 2024, this new report “must include a response to Amnesty International’s allegations,” concludes UNESCO.