'Land grab' anger still rife in Cambodia

Campaigning has ended ahead of Sunday's elections in Cambodia, where land conflicts have hurt ruling party's standing.


    On the dusty outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital, 35-year-old Ros Bopha and her family are struggling to make ends meet.

    Evicted from the city two years ago as part of a plan to rebuild Cambodia's dilapidated railway, Ros had to give up her job in a garment factory because it was too expensive to get there. Worse, she and her husband were forced to leave their four children – the youngest just three years old – with an NGO in the city because the local school had no space for them and they could no longer afford to support such a large family.

    Ros's house – a single-roomed wooden shack that cost three times the $350 she received in compensation – has a pretty garden with flowers and banana trees and overlooks rice fields. In the distance, beyond the paddy, Phnom Penh's nouveau riche play golf on the carefully tended lawns of the Civica Royal Cambodia Golf Club, but for Ros there's nowhere to go and little to do.

    "If I could say one thing to Hun Sen [Cambodia's Prime Minister] I'd tell him that he must govern for all Cambodians, not just the rich tycoons," Ros told Al Jazeera on the eve of Sunday's election, the fifth since peace was restored in 1991.

    Land, corruption and the rising cost of living are major concerns to a growing number of Cambodians, especially younger people who have little or no memory of the bloody years of the Khmer Rouge and the conflict that followed. Half the country's population is under 25 while the same proportion of voters is under the age of 30. Many feel they're missing out on the country's economic expansion and worry that development has come with too high a price.

    The Housing Rights Task Force, a Cambodian NGO, says some 10 percent of Phnom Penh's two million people are victims of eviction. Some have been forced to live on rubbish dumps with only a tarpaulin for shelter because the homes that were promised for them were never built. Those who've tried to fight the developers and stop their eviction have been harassed and, in some cases, jailed.

    Forced evictions

    In the countryside, the traditional stronghold of the ruling party, rights groups estimate some 700,000 people have been affected by the government's development programmes, which have put 2.6 million hectares of land into the hands of private companies and foreign investors. Even with the rapid growth of the past few years, a third of the population lives on just 61 cents a day and farmers fear the ELCs will consign generations of rural Cambodians to poverty.

    Although the programme was suspended last year, and a land titling scheme begun, the discontent over land helped boost the opposition in last year's local elections. With Rainsy back from four years of self-imposed exile in France, his party's hoping it can win more seats in the national parliament at the expense of Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party, assuring voters it'll pressure the government to roll back land concessions, stop forced evictions and review resettlement schemes.

    Ros has decided that on Sunday she'll vote for the opposition. So too, have some of her former neighbours along the railway tracks who fear they'll soon be given orders to move. Their decision couldn't have been easy. Ros, who has hung a poster supporting the opposition on her front gate, has neither water nor power at her new home. She says the village chief – the eyes and ears of the ruling party – made sure she got neither.

    "The government has abandoned us," she said.



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