Cambodia's growing dispossessed

As the country's economy booms, thousands of people have been evicted from their homes to make way for developments.

    Boeung Kak Lake, a 90 hectare expanse of water, has already had three-fourths filled in, while 
    residents around it are being forcibly evicted [CC - Save Me Jebus]

    When armed construction workers turned up at dawn to start pumping thousands of gallons of sand and water into Ly Si Moan's home, her terrified scramble for safety had her joining thousands of others who have recently had to flee developers in Cambodia.

    "They started pumping during the night," she says, "while we were sleeping. I think they wanted to eliminate all trace of us."

    Indeed, all that remains of the village where Ly Si Moan's house and business once stood is a long sandbank, covering three-quarters of what was once a lake at the heart of Phnom Penh.

    Ly Si Moan is also just one of some 20,000 people who have been evicted from their homes either on or around the historic, 90-hectare Boueng Kak Lake during the last few months.

    And according to Surya P Subedi, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, what is happening is also "representative of the problems of this nature that exist in the country. Land grabbing by the rich and powerful is a major problem in Cambodia today".

    An 'escalating problem'

    Indeed, Cambodian rights group Adhoc says that last year alone, 12,389 families in the country became the victims of forced evictions.

    Another rights group, housing advocates STT, estimates that around 10 per cent of the population of Phnom Penh has faced eviction in the last decade.

    At the same time, the Cambodian Human Rights Foundation (LICADHO) director Naly Pilorge says that in their survey of half the country's provinces "between 2005 and 2009 some 250,000 people were evicted. Last year alone we dealt with 94 new cases of land grabbing involving approximately 49,280 people".

    "And the problem is escalating," she adds.

    The residents of Boeung Kak are being moved as developers fill in the lake with sand and silt scooped out of a nearby river. Where this lake once spread, a new, residential, commercial and entertainment complex is due to be constructed.

    Economic boom

    As Cambodia's economy booms, land is becoming more valuable, particularly in the capital, Phnom Penh.

    "Cambodia has so much land available for concessions," says Ngnon Meng, the director-general of the Cambodian chamber of commerce. "The government is very willing to do things for foreign investors too … when they come in they don't want to leave."

    The economy grew by 5.5 per cent last year, according to government figures, with last year seeing a new law allowing foreign ownership of property. It also saw another new law allowing the government to expropriate land for developments it deems to be in the public interest.

    The Cambodian ministry of agriculture, forestry and fisheries says that the government granted more than 1.38 million hectares of land in concessions to 142 different private companies between 1993 and June 2010.

    "When land belongs to the government, they can do what they like with it," says Ngnon Meng. "Although some people are just trying to hold back our country's development with their protests."

    Yet Cambodia has some very unique issues when it comes to land and the people who live on it.

    Rooted in war

    "It all goes back to the war," says Sung Bonna, the vice-president of the Cambodian Real Estate Developers Association. "Everything got completely mixed up back then."

    In 1975, the notorious Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia, after years of fighting and US bombing.

    One of their first acts was to evacuate the entire population of Phnom Penh. Forced into the countryside, this was the beginning of the horror of the Killing Fields.

    Around 20 per cent of the country's population died in that carnage, while the Khmer Rouge also abolished private property, destroying land titles and records.

    In 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia. Many Cambodians fled to neighbouring Thailand, with conflict then continuing into the 1990s. This left an enormous displaced population, with many survivors moving to areas because they were safe and offered a chance of survival.

    Boueng Kak Lake was one such place. Many of those there now were born in refugee camps in Thailand, or remember all too well the horrors of that era.

    "In 1979, the Khmer Rouge shot my husband in front of me, by the roadside, as we tried to get back into Phnom Penh," says 67-year-old Ngin Savoeun. Her house was flooded with sand and water last November. "I've lost everything now," she says. "I had no time to take anything away when they started flooding my home. I survived the Khmer Rouge and now this."

    Land denied

    In 2001, the Cambodian government issued a new land law recognising the problem of land title. If you could show you had lived in a place for five years continuously, and there were no challenges, you could apply for a title.

    Many at Boeung Kak, who had been there since the early 1980s, applied.

    Yet, "in early 2007, the residents were denied title en masse," according to a January 2011 report on the issue from Bridges Across Borders Cambodia, an NGO advocating for the residents. "In the same month, the Cambodian government entered into a 99-year lease agreement with private developer Shukaku Inc.," the report continues.

    A representative of Shukaku declined to comment on this story when contacted.

    While this was going on, the World Bank - along with the German, Canadian and Finnish national overseas development organisations - was cooperating with the Cambodian government in a project to assess and award land titles across the country.

    Too little too late

    Last week, the Bank announced the results of an internal inquiry into this project. The inquiry found that "residents in the Boeung Kak Lake area were denied access to due process of adjudication of their property claims and were displaced in violation of the policies the Bank agreed with the government for handling resettlement".

    The Bank admitted failings in the project and called on the government to stop the evictions.

    The Cambodian ministry of land management then responded in an official statement that Boeung Kak had been outside the remit of the project and thus was "not under the conditions set for social safeguards".

    Now, residents are calling for the Bank - and other international agencies - to take stronger action.

    "Only foreign pressure can help us now," says resident and local organiser Tep Vanny. "We believe the companies are tied to the government and when we protest, we are threatened and no one listens. Please, see what is happening here."

    Time may also be running out. Last week, Vanny says the remaining residents were given seven days to accept the company's offer of $8,500 compensation and demolish their homes, or get nothing.

    "We would rather die here," says Vanny. "People must also understand this. This is our home and we will not leave."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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