Land grabs in Cambodia push poor out
Rights groups press government to end forced resettlement as parcels sold off `to highest bidder'
Feb 21, 2009
Toronto Star (Ontario, Canada)
PHNOM PENH–When military police sealed off the ramshackle, inner-city neighbourhood of Dey Krahorm at 2 a.m. one day last month – preparing to forcibly remove its remaining residents to make way for a plush, new commercial development – Lee Robinson, of Victoria, B.C., was inside.
"We knew there was going to be trouble," says Robinson, who runs a small non-governmental organization here called Licadho Canada.
Robinson and a handful of other Canadians, Americans and Germans had come to show their support for the people of Dey Krahorm, many of whom had been fighting for years to cling to what they believed was their rightful property.
Robinson and her foreign colleagues are part of a small but vocal throng of international youth that has converged on Cambodia, to press international donors and their governments to call Cambodia's government to account over its continued seizure of neighbourhoods populated by the poor and to press for civil rights.
But that day last month, they could do little when the neighbourhood of Dey Krahorm was laid to waste by the developer, with the backing of military police, the riot squad, and a band of about 100 "hired hands" clutching crowbars and clubs.
When the sun finally rose over Phnom Penh, the developer's group pushed its way through barricades of wood, metal and vendors' carts mounted by residents, and cleared a path for a massive steam shovel that swung its arm like a baseball bat, crushing every structure in its path.
Tear gas boomed, fires erupted and people were dragged screaming from their homes. Police endured a rain of rocks in retaliation.
"Everything kind of went into a war zone," Robinson recalls. "It was chaos."
By noon it was over. Dey Krahorm, a neighbourhood that began in the mid-1980s and was once home to musicians, actors, comedians and even a few civil servants, was no more.
The defeated were trucked off to a resettlement site some 20 kilometres outside the city, and once again, the development of Cambodia's capital marched on.
International human rights groups here say this is happening with increasing frequency across one of the world's poorest countries.
As international aid floods into Cambodia – aimed at reducing poverty and helping to build infrastructure – the rich elite are growing ever more powerful, while the poor are getting pushed aside.
"Cambodia is basically up for sale," says David Pred, one of the founders of Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia, a spinoff of a U.S.-based human rights organization.
"It's being parcelled up and sold to the highest bidder."
He says it's time the international community called a halt to it. And it's in a position to do so, he adds.
"International donors provide half of this government's national budget," he notes. "It's time they demanded accountability."
Pred and a growing number of non-governmental organizations and human rights defenders say aid to the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen should be made conditional on its respect for law and human rights.
Once counted among the Dey Krahorm community's staunchest defenders was former Canadian ambassador to Phnom Penh, Donica Pottie.
"People here still remember her," says Naly Pilorge, a French, Canadian and Khmer national who heads Cambodia's largest human rights organization, The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights. "She stood up for the people of Dey Krahorm and for the poor."
While here, Pottie worked to free jailed human rights defenders and pressed the government to end forced removals and halt widespread land expropriation.
But Pottie returned to Ottawa in 2007 and Canada's mission here was downgraded from full-fledged embassy status following cutbacks from Ottawa.
This month, British-based environmental watchdog Global Witness issued a stinging report detailing what it alleges is the parcelling out of the nation's oil, gas and mineral reserves mainly to the family, friends and trusted associates of the government of Hun Sen.
Opposition parties here immediately seized on the report to demand an accounting from the government. But following national elections in July last year, in which Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party took 91 of 123 seats – elections that were criticized by the European Union and the United Nation's Special Representative for Human Rights as seriously flawed – the opposition is weak.
The government has promised to look into the matter, but with no stated timetable.
Meanwhile, as Cambodia's rich elite get richer, the nation continues to do without.
Cambodia has no national electricity grid.
Its highways are in a shambles.
And more than 60 per cent of Cambodians have no access to clean water.
The land on which Dey Krahorm once stood – the words mean "Red Soil" – was actually granted to the community by the government as a so-called Social Land Concession in 2003, one of several under a plan announced by Hun Sen himself to provide secure land tenure and on-site upgrading for Phnom Penh's poor.
But, as is so often the case in the developing world, the developer persuaded a tiny band of community leaders to affix their thumbprints to documents, turning over the entire parcel for their own lucrative private gain and a remote relocation outside the city. The deal was done without any consultation with the Dey Krahorm residents.
Some gave in. But a rump group of more than 150 families took a stand. They fired the leaders, elected their own and refused to move. Some 250 small retailers and renters stayed with them.
"In our view it (the land grab) was completely illegal," says German lawyer Manfred Hornung, who works for Pilorge's human rights organization and is now defending the leaders of the remaining residents who have been taken to court by the developers.
He warns, too, that forced removals like Dey Krahorm come with significant social costs, costs that may simmer now – and come to a boil later.
"Resettling people so far outside the city disrupts families, forces people to abandon jobs and takes children out of school."
And it's part of a pattern in recent years, he notes.
The forced removal of other Phnom Penh neighbourhoods like Sambok Chap, Mitheapheap and Russy Keo have all forced the poor from the city. And yet another target is Boeung Kak – a lake in the city's north end that developers plan to backfill and build on, pushing as many as 4,000 families in the surrounding area out of the city.
The plans for Boeung Kak constitute a social and environmental disaster in the making, says Pred of Bridges Across Borders.
"International aid is supposed to be about poverty reduction. But this epidemic of land theft is undermining the international community's best efforts.
"We're absolutely not anti-development," he says.
"But what we're seeing here is exclusive development for the super-rich, while the poor get pushed ever deeper into poverty. It's creating conditions for instability."