Heritage preservation, land grabbing and resettlement in the Angkor Archaeological Park, Cambodia

The Angkor Archaeological Park (AAP) is situated in Cambodia’s Siem Reap Province on the northern shores of the Tonle Sap Lake, which is Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake and has been described as the country’s ‘beating heart’. It is a place of exceptional archaeological significance, with magnificent monuments (Figure 8.1) such as Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon and Ta Prohm, dating from the 9th to the 15th century when the Angkor region was the capital of an expansive Khmer empire (Gillespie, 2009). Preservation of the monuments for tourism consumption dates back to French colonialism when archaeologists and historians from the École Française d’Extreme Orient (EFEO) removed trees, monks and local communities from the expansive temple grounds to reinforce their own imagination of historic ‘Indochina’ and establish themselves as the sole interpreters of Angkorean and Khmer history (Winter, 2007).

Historic monuments at the Bayon Temple in Angkor Archaeological Park (AAP)

Figure 8.1 Historic monuments at the Bayon Temple in Angkor Archaeological Park (AAP)

The Angkor Archaeological Park (AAP) was listed as a ‘World Heritage in Danger’ site by UNESCO in 1992, a year after the 1991 Paris Peace Accord, which brought relative political stability to post-conflict Cambodia. As the legislative, executive and judicial branches of Cambodia’s transitional government were deemed weak and the entire cadastral infrastructure of the country had been destroyed under the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge (1975—1979), UNESCO authorities saw the urgent need of establishing legal and spatial boundaries to protect the cultural heritage sites against threats of land grabbing and unregulated construction (Winter, 2015). The AAP was subsequently subjected to a zoning process under the so-called Zoning and Environmental Management Plan (ZEMP), drawn up in 1993 and legally enforced by Royal Decree in 1994, with Zone 1 defined as a core zone with the highest level of protection and Zone 2 described as a buffer to protect the core zone (Gillespie, 2011; Winter, 2007). Regulations regarding these two zones have strong implications for the more than 120,000 residents divided into over 100 villages and hamlets (Figure 8.2), most of which had occupied the land prior to the AAP’s World Heritage designation (Gillespie, 2009). Another three zones were established to designate protected cultural landscapes along rivers (Zone 3), additional sites of archaeological, anthropological and historic interest (Zone 4) and the socio-economic and cultural development zone of the wider Siem Reap region (Zone 5) (Miura, 2011a). Recognising the threats to the preservation of the AAP, UNESGO created the International Coordinating

Shops and street vendors in a village inside the core zone of the AAP

Figure 8.2 Shops and street vendors in a village inside the core zone of the AAP

Committee for the Safeguarding and Development of Angkor (ICC), an administrative body co-chaired by France and Japan which were Cambodia’s largest bilateral donor countries at the time, thereby further foreignising the legal and administrative infrastructure of the Angkor region (Winter, 2007).

Heeding calls for the establishment of a Cambodian-run management body to complement the ZEMP and ICC, a 1995 Law — further backed by a 1999 Law - assigned the management authority of the AAP to the Autorité pour la Protection du Site et ¡’Aménagement de la Region d’Angkor (APSARA), i.e. the Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap (Miura, 2011a; Winter, 2007). It also established the so-called ‘Heritage Police’ in 1997, under the authority of Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior and trained by French police forces (Miura, 2011a). While the AAP is formally under the status of‘state public property’, the customary land rights of residents in Zones 1 and 2 are also recognised. Villagers are entitled to remain in those zones as long as they do not expand their properties and do not sell their land to outsiders (see Box 8.1). However, in the early years, the zoning laws were not sufficiently made publicly known, and the boundaries remained largely unclear to many residents. This uncertainty was exploited by some Cambodian authorities - other than APSARA — to issue permits to build tourism facilities in the protected zones (Miura, 2011a). The national government also supported the expansion of hotels since the early 2000s, as its stated aim was to benefit economically from the commodification of the AAP for tourism purposes (Heikilla and Peycam, 2010). At the same time, the Heritage Police - often without consulting APSARA — imposed bans on many traditional practices of local residents and collected fines from street vendors and rice farmers for allegedly illegal activities (Miura, 2011a).

Box 8.1 Rights of residents to their own land in Zones 1 and 2 of Angkor Archaeological Park

  • 1 The villagers, who have homes and have lived in the Angkor Heritage Park for ages, can continue to live there without being forced to leave the village.
  • 2 The villagers can demolish their old houses or build new ones with authorisation from APSARA Authority.
  • 3 The villagers have the right to manage their own lands such as: transferring land possession to their relatives - parents to children, or selling land to their neighbours to obtain money for living expenses. However, it is forbidden to buy and sell land for the purpose of making profitable business for companies or individuals to build hotels, restaurants, KTV (karaoke venues), etc.

Source: http://apsaraauthority.gov.kh/?page=front&lg=en

Many incidents of evictions, house demolitions and harassments have been reported in the context of the AAP in the early 2000s (e.g. Miura, 2011b). In 2017, more than 500 ‘illegally’ constructed houses inside the AAP were demolished by police upon order of APSARA and pressure from UNESCO’s Cambodia representative (Pech, 2017a, 2017b). APSARA argued that these buildings were hastily erected in the lead-up to Cambodia’s communal elections held in June 2017 and that their construction was unlawfully authorised by village and commune leaders (pers. comm., senior APSARA official, February 2019). In another case, one village in the vicinity of the AAP was asked to give up their rice fields in order to make way for a resettled community, but several households continue to resist this dispossession (Figures 8.3 and 8.4).

While forced evictions from the AAP have been infrequent in recent years, younger residents in particular are encouraged to move out of the two inner zones. In the late 2000s, APSARA created an ‘eco-village for sustainable development’ on an area of roughly 1,000 hectares in order to reduce the population pressure in the AAP (Kaliyann, 2013). The eco-village named Run Ta-Ek was designed by a Canadian architect and also features a scenic lake, a Buddhist pagoda and home-stay-style bungalows for tourists (Figures 8.5 and 8.6). APSARA provided free land (and free housing materials for the first 100 families) to entice inhabitants of the AHP to move to this area which is located a few kilometres off the northeastern corner of the Park’s Zone 2. As of February 2019, only about 50 households were living in Run Ta-Ek, but there are plans to move an additional 800 families over the next few years (pers. comm., APSARA senior official, February 2019).

Community members guarding their rice fields against dispossession by APSARA

Figure 8.3 Community members guarding their rice fields against dispossession by APSARA

APSARA insists that the buildings are kept in a traditional way and that the land may never be sold to maintain a ‘sense of permanence’ (Miura, 2011b).

Meanwhile, land speculation in and around the AAP is booming. As land prices in Siem Reap Town are rapidly rising, tourism investors are increasingly looking for land closer to the AAP. A senior APSARA official expressed his frustration with these land grabs:

Government authorities work only eight hours a day, but land investors work 24 hours a day, so how can we stop land speculation? Villagers are lured into selling their land due to the high land prices and some of them sell at night to avoid being fined. The commune leaders also do not respect their role but sign papers that allow outsiders to purchase land. Even the banks recognise such land as collateral. Cambodian people participate in the destruction of their own culture.

(pers. comm., February 2019)

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were no signs that the tourism boom and the associated land speculation would subside any time soon. In 2018, record numbers of international visitors of the AAP were counted (2.59 million), a more than 5 per cent increase to the previous year (Cheng, 2019). The AAP also remains popular with domestic tourists who regard the monuments as both a symbol of national pride and a place of religious devotion.

Lake-side pagoda in Run Ta-Ek Eco-Village

Figure 8.5 Lake-side pagoda in Run Ta-Ek Eco-Village

A tourist bungalow in Kun Ta-Ek Eco-Village

Figure 8.6 A tourist bungalow in Kun Ta-Ek Eco-Village

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