Connect to share and comment

Cambodia evictions continue unchecked

In the most recent manifestation of an old injustice, 300 families were forced from their homes in a central slum.

Cambodia evictions 2012 01 20Enlarge
Near Boeung Kak Lake homes built near the railroad track were bulldozed, Jan. 22, 2010. (Jodi Hilton/GlobalPost)

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — In fast-developing Phnom Penh, land is at a premium, and it's the poor who pay the price for high-end development.

It is not a new story. More than 400,000 Cambodians have been evicted from their homes or have had their land grabbed since 2003, according to local human rights groups.

And the trend continues to gather steam, despite a high-profile case last year in which the international community got involved, if only for a moment. In 2011, the World Bank froze loans to Cambodia after 20,000 people were faced with forced eviction.

But even the freeze, which stands today, hasn't stemmed the tide of evictions. The government continues to favor major development firms over the poor Cambodian majority.

In the most recent case, a major development company, Phan Imex, bulldozed the modest slum homes of 300 families in a neighborhood called Borei Keila in the capital Phnom Penh.

Anatomy of a forced eviction

Hundreds of Borei Keila residents fought against armed riot police with Molotov cocktails and rocks in a battle that began in the early morning of Jan. 3, and continued for hours with many injuries on both sides. Eight protesters were arrested in the fray, and remain in prison as of this writing.

The next day, evictees took to the streets, protesting outside international embassies for help.

“We thought we were dead,” said one woman with a recent wound on her face. She said she was sleeping in her Borei Keila apartment when bulldozers began to knock it down.

“We were not able to get anything out of the house — this is all I have, a krama [a Cambodian scarf] and some dirty clothes,” she said.

Most of the evictees wanted to remain anonymous, concerned about possible government backlash.

Their complaint?

Phan Imex had promised to build 10 new apartment buildings for 1,776 residents to replace the demolished homes, in a deal reached with villagers and the government in 2003. But Phan Imex announced in 2010 that it could only afford to build eight buildings, leaving 300 families in the lurch.

The left-out families were offered plots of land in two relocation sites instead of finished apartments. The sites, mind you, more closely resemble desolate refugee camps. Confused children, far away from the schools, roam in packs. Their families scramble to build shelters to keep off the sun, and keep out the mosquitoes.

Protesters weren’t safe from the law either: 30 women and children, peacefully protesting in downtown Phnom Penh on Jan. 11, were thrown into vans and sent to a detention center. Held without charge, the government claimed the women and children were being kept to “to figure out their real needs and intentions."

Of these, 20 of the detained women and children staged a dramatic escape on Jan. 18, climbing over the walls as security personnel looked on, taking tuk-tuks to a local NGO, the Housing Rights Task Force.

More from GlobalPost: Cambodia pushes out the poor

"This eviction shows once again that Cambodia's political and economic elite can operate with absolute impunity, without regard to the law," said Tim Malay, president of the Cambodia Youth Network, condemning the evictions in a press release.

As of last week, 100 families were living at one of the relocation sites, Phnom Bat, which is about 35 miles from the center of the capital. But Phan Imex has formally recognized only 60 families as having claim to a plot of land there, which leaves the other 40 vulnerable to potential future eviction.

The company has demanded petitioners for plots present residence documents and be "recognized" by a local authority. But finding the right documents and getting recognition is proving hard for some evictees. Many lost their paperwork when their homes were destroyed.

"The company [Phan Imex] is fully supported by the governor and the head of the government," said opposition lawmaker and human-rights activist Mu Sochua of the evictions. "There is total silence from their part, while the company calls the shots. This is total lack of accountability."

What can former residents of Borei Keila expect?

"The only thing the future holds for these Borei Keila families is the desperation of dispossession that affects a rapidly growing number of Cambodians who have been forced off their land," said Human Rights Watch Asia deputy director