Phnom Penh (Cambodia).13/01/2009: Mann Chhoeun, vice-Governor of Phnom Penh, at a roundtable organised by the Club of Cambodian Journalists on Dey Krohom. On the left handside, one of the sons of Srey Sothea, who owns the 7NG company (Photo: John Vink/ Magnum)
By Ros Dina
Ka-set in English
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Late July 2003, an urbanisation plan established by the municipality of Phnom Penh provided that the residents of the Bassac settlement, in the heart of Phnom Penh, be grouped on part of the area known as “Dey Krohom” (“Red Lands”) and enjoy the possibility of getting ownership rights. But three years later, the villagers of the Red Lands were informed by a municipal circular that they were going to be evicted. A long struggle started between them, the local authorities and the 7NG company, who was granted the land to build a residential tower and a shopping mall. On 30th December, the dozens of families still opposed to leaving under the current conditions were expected to be forced out. But the threat has not been acted upon yet. The land dispute has drawn out for years but now seems to be closer to the end.
Since 2006, when they found out they had to give way for the 7NG company, the villagers of Dey Krohom have kept repeating they would sell their land for its real market value, not for the slashed price offered to them. They have also recalled the government's commitment to allow them the on-site development of their community. Their words have hardly changed but in this protracted conflict, 1,374 out of the initial count of 1,465 families have already left, that is 93% of them. They have accepted monetary compensations or relocation in the village of Damnak Trah Yeung, in the Dangkor district, over twenty kilometers West of Phnom Penh.
The Club of Cambodian Journalists invited Mann Chhoeun, the deputy governor of Cambodia's capital, to express his views on the situation on Tuesday 13th January. He disclosed the latest offer made by 7NG, that is 20,000 USD – plus food supplies and indemnity for the move – for each of the uncompromising families in exchange for their departure – an increase of 5,000 USD from the previous offer – under the essential requirement that all of the families accept this solution. Srey Chanthou, the director of the company, affirms that the offer was communicated to the residents on the evening of the previous day and is valid until Wednesday 14th January. A rumour says that on Thursday, the day following the expiry of the offer, the eviction of the residents will be actually ordered. Officially, it is expected to take place “in the very near future”.
An exercise in public relations
Mann Chhoeun performed a real exercise in public relations, complete with visuals to illustrate his words. A slide show presented the new environment of the resettled families in the village of Damnak Trah Yeung, where they enjoy running water, electricity, new bicycles they were able to buy on credit, several buses that provide shuttle service to the Demkor market (behind the Chenla theatre) nine times a day, a market, shops... and a nearby factory. The picture painted is one of residents happy in their frail 4m x 12m houses, all on the ground floor...
The deputy governor sent a message to the 91 remaining families, although community representatives claim there are 150 left, and warned that the company will not include in the negotiations the opportunists who have joined the group in the hope of also receiving compensation.
The official then depicted Dey Krohom as a “difficult” area, inhabited by drug addicts and hub of all kinds of traffic. An observer claimed in a low voice 7NG representatives were seen selling “glue” to villagers. As for the famous artists living in this small community – the chapey players Kong Nay and Ta Phe –, Mann Chhoeun alleged the company had solved their problem by offering them to be relocated in the Phnom Penh neighbourhood of Boeung Tampoun.
“We have not acted since the ultimatum of 30th December. The municipality – as the mediator between the company and the residents – has shown treasures of patience and demonstrated its willingness to handle the situation for the best,” Mann Chhoeun argued.
The accusations against 7NG
In the audience, David Pred, director of the NGO Bridges Across Borders Cambodia, contested the initial number of families in the community as shown in the presentation and asked why there was no mention of the corruption that reportedly marred the allocation of the housing lots in the resettlement village. The word “corruption” got lost in the translation into Khmer and Mann Chhoeun replied that if the activist questioned the inflated figure, it meant he was siding with the 7NG company.
David Pred then accused some former community representatives of pursuing their own personal interest, without any consideration for the villagers. The deputy governor pointed out that the residents had accepted their candidacy and had not prevented them from intervening in their name. When the representative of Bridges Across Borders then evoked how intimidation and violence had been used against the residents to sway them, Mann Chhoeun held in his hand a letter from 7NG in which the company instructs their lawyer to withdraw their complaint against one of the Dey Krohom residents, the owner of a coffee shop, who they accused of acts of violence. The deputy governor painted the residents as uncontrollable and rebellious people who did not hesitate to throw bags of urine and feces to 7NG representatives.
Bunn Rachana, from the organisation Housing Rights Task Force, then referred to the land law and asked why the villagers were not allowed to be resettled on site. Her question was answered by Chhim Phalvorin, director of the Institute of demography and specialist of the Cambodian Constitution, and second guest of the Club of Cambodian Journalists. He first observed that “sometimes, people ask for too much money for compensation, as if they were encouraged by others to do so.” He then recalled that Dey Krohom residents had written in 2003 to Prime Minister Hun Sen to ask to be allowed to remain there, which “proves that the residents were aware they had settled there in complete illegality.” The specialist insisted that an occupation is declared legal as long as it is based on a legal ownership title. “If this were the case, the residents could then be entitled to claim for financial compensation based on actual land market value.”
Pursuing his explanations, Mann Chhoeun stressed that the hypothesis of an on-site resettlement had been envisaged in a first time, under which half the land would be for the company and the other half for the residents. “However, the only way to provide a roof for everyone was to build a nine-floor building. But the residents said they did not want to live above the ground floor and further demanded an elevator. Who will pay for the electricity for the elevator? As the 7NG company had land available in the village of Damnak Trah Yeung, they offered to resettle the residents there.”
On Tuesday afternoon, the residents met at the headquarters of the NGO Community Legal Education Center (CLEC) to discuss a new common strategy as things seemed to gather speed. The NGO representatives present advised them to negotiate a postponement of the eviction ultimatum set by the authorities, by communicating such request to the municipality of Phnom Penh and to 7NG. Their lawyer, Attorney Chiv Sambath, explained this would give them more time to agree on the amount of money they want to receive in exchange for their departure. He suggested they should advocate for the resumption of three-party negotiations as 7NG has made it clear that from now on, it will be the same price for everybody.
“It is starting to be very complicated because nobody has the same opinion. Only a couple of families have told me they would accept 7NG's latest offer of 20,000 USD. Those who own large houses still consider the offer not to be enough. I have probed the residents and their requests are between 30,000 and 60,000 USD. Also, some change their mind along the way, depending on what their neighbours are asking for... It is hard to agree on a consensus,” Chan Vichet, the representative of the families still opposed to leaving, explained by the end of the day.
Discussions between the residents were to continue throughout the evening. They are now in a race against time and more than ever, they must present a united front against the municipality and the 7NG company.