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French school evicts Cambodian locals [-Did the French learn eviction from Hun Sen and his cronies? Bravo la France?!?!]

Written By vibykhmer on Thursday, May 14, 2009 | 7:57 AM


The existing residents say they have nowhere to go
Limsreang and his family face eviction after living in their home for 30 years
"It's a horrible feeling because they say they're doing this for us - for us the students" - Raimondo Pictet, student at the lycee and protester

Wednesday, 13 May 2009
By Guy De Launey
BBC News, Phnom Penh


San Limsreang knew it was over when the "green screen of death" arrived.

These corrugated metal fences are a common sight in Phnom Penh, encircling communities destined for eviction.

At least two dozen police accompanied the workmen sent by City Hall as they dug holes, banged in fence-posts and erected the screen in front of the grocery stalls and coffee shops at the rear of the Lycee Rene Descartes.
Limsreang and his neighbours looked on fearfully as their homes were cut off from the street. They knew all too well what usually happens to communities marked in such a manner.

The 68-year-old had been hoping for a peaceful retirement after a varied working life.

He had worked as a banker, a vet and a civil servant - and for 30 years his ever-expanding family made their home on the fourth floor of a building behind what is now one of Cambodia's elite schools.

Now the Lycee Rene Descartes wants to expand.

And along with its landlord, the French embassy, it has asked the local authorities to clear Limsreang's building so that it can be used for the school.

The lycee insists that the building belonged to the school before the Khmer Rouge arrived in 1975; now it is merely taking back its rightful property.

The residents, however, say they were ordered to live behind the lycee after Vietnamese-backed forces ousted Pol Pot's government in 1979.

Labelled 'squatters'

"We wanted to go back my old house but other people were occupying it," Limsreang says.

"After 1979 everyone ended up living in different houses. At that time all the houses belonged to the government - that's why we had to do that."

The new regime did not allow much flexibility. As well as being directed to live in the building behind the lycee, many were told to work in the school which took over the site.

Later the residents took jobs with the local government or the civil service.

They lived rent-free, but were officially registered by the authorities, and took their right to live in their homes for granted.

That turned out to be overly-optimistic. When peace returned to Cambodia in the 1990s, so did the Lycee Rene Descartes.

At first the school co-existed with the residents, but an expanding demand inspired the lycee to seek the removal of the community.

"This site belonging to the embassy must go back to the school," says Pierre Olivieri, the co-ordinator of a parents' committee pressing for the move.

"We're the only French school in the world with a squat - even nations at war like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan don't have that.

"It's not good for the image of France or Cambodia."

The residents resent being labelled as "squatters", and they were unwilling to leave for the compensation on offer - a few thousand dollars and a plot of undeveloped land on a reclaimed lake on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

Limsreang says that City Hall made a series of threats to evict his community - and said it would give them nothing if they did not accept the terms.

Fearing the worst, some families signed the deal and moved out.

The only ray of hope for the residents was the support of some of the students at the Lycee.

'Regularly criticised'

A student demonstration before Khmer New Year in April brought much-needed publicity to the community's plight.

"It's a horrible feeling because they say they're doing this for us - for us the students," says a 17-year-old protester, Raimondo Pictet.

"For security reasons and for our well-being, these people are being evicted. Well they're human beings too - and they also have a well-being.

They have children who are also going to school - and if they're evicted they won't be able to finish their school year."

Raimondo's efforts have not been appreciated universally.

He says he has been insulted by some students' parents, and a local newspaper published a disparaging comment from the school principal.

But the residents behind the lycee say they are grateful for the students' involvement.

"I'm really excited that teenage students understand about human rights," says Limsreang, before he is interrupted by his son Vichet, a medical student.

"Yes, but it's not good for the French government. Maybe they don't give a damn about human rights issues in Cambodia.

"But we're living here legitimately, and we want to leave here with a fair amount of compensation. We don't want to get rich or anything."

The French embassy did not respond to several requests for an interview.

After weeks of pressure, the remaining residents have now agreed to go.

They say they are sympathetic to the needs of the school, but frightened that their relocation might turn into another forced eviction in which they could lose everything.

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