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Cambodia evictions continue unchecked

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

Phil Robertson.

"There is no better way to abuse a person's economic, social and cultural rights than to strip them of the land where they have resided for generations," he added.

When the World Bank got involved

The Borei Keila evictees face a situation similar to that of the Boueng Lake evictees, who made headlines in 2010 and 2011 as they waged their own battle against Shukaku Inc, a development company headed by a senator from the ruling Cambodian People's Party.

As Shukaku pumped sandy sludge into the inner-city lake and the homes surrounding it to make way for high-end development projects, around 20,000 families were faced with forced eviction.

Some families accepted inadequate compensation for their homes and left, but many did not. In response to the evictions, the World Bank froze loans to Cambodia in August of last year, a freeze that has yet to be lifted.

In response to the freeze, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen awarded 12.44 hectares of residential land to villagers displaced by Shukaku Inc, and over 500 plots have been awarded to date, although protests and disputes continue.

One Boeung Kak evictee, Kun Chantha, joined in the Borei Keila protests this month outside the US Embassy.

“I want you to go back and ask Phan Imex what else they want from you,” a passionate Chantha told the crowd, who stood in the hot sun, largely ignored by Embassy staffers who passed in and out of the heavily fortified gates.

“Give everything to them ...” she said. “Even if you are naked, you shouldn’t be ashamed. The people who should be ashamed are the government.”

How widespread are forced evictions?

Despite the high-profile World Bank freeze, land-grabs and evictions still take place distressingly often, as the government doles out land concessions to rubber, mining, tourism and agriculture firms.

According to a recent USAID report, 7 percent of Cambodia's land outside protected areas has been granted to private firms for agro-industrial plantations.

These concessions have been made at the expense of the average Cambodian: according to the report, landlessness has been on the rise since the late 1990s, and as of 2009, an estimated 20 to 40 percent of rural households had no formal title to their property.

Cambodian law dictates that land can be taken from individuals if it's in the public interest, but the law also says the government has to pay the market value of the land in compensation to evictees, a stipulation that's rarely honored.

The reality of relocation

Evictees face hard lives at relocation sites.

There are no bathrooms, medical care is far-off, and water quality is poor. NGOs are forced to drop off food and medical supplies. Most of the men are in the city, trying to eke out a living far from their families.

A recent survey of 195 relocated or land-threatened people, conducted by local NGO Housing Rights Task Force, came back with distressing results.

More than two-thirds of households in relocated areas were over $869 in debt (in a nation where per capita gross domestic product stands at only $830 a year), while 35.7 percent of relocated people are unemployed, in comparison to 18.4 percent prior to the forced move.

Evictees vie for global spotlight

Despite protests and local media attention, the international community has paid little mind to the plight of Borei Keila residents, or to Cambodian land-grabbing issues in general.

Many feel that sweeping international action is the only way to get government attention — and specific action at that.

On Wednesday, four people protesting a local land grab were shot in Snuol, in southern Cambodia. Prime Minister Hun Sen has condemned the shootings, perpetrated by private security guards, but whether they will be brought to justice remains to be seen.

"The Cambodian government only responds to a mixture of embarrassment and fear of losing development projects," said Robertson of Human Rights Watch. "The international community has to continue to demonstrate the political will to confront these abuses whenever and wherever they occur."

But as January drags on, relocation sites fill up, and 8 Borei Keila protesters languish in prison, no condemnations like the World Bank loan freeze are forthcoming.

As one evictee said outside the US embassy, "Only the poor help the poor. The rich and powerful would never dare to come here to help us."

Sek Sokunroth (Alex) contributed reporting to this story.

Clarification: The figures at the top of this story pertaining to how many Cambodians have faced eviction or had their land grabbed since 2003, as well as how many faced eviction at Boeung Kak in 2011, have been updated.