In June 1975 waves of black-clad guerilla fighters entered Phnom Penh and emptied it – by persuasion, coercion and violence – in just a few days. The Khmer Rouge north had beaten the south, and as a first step, more than two million bewildered people were banished from the city and sent to live in the countryside. Today, facing the prospect of its first skyscraper, a rash of Special Economic Zones and numerous foreign-backed developments, Cambodia is boasting of a new era. Yet some things haven’t changed.
“See that tree?” asks Son Chhay, a bespectacled Cambodian minister, as we stand on the steps of the new national assembly building and look south. “Behind that there’s a company, 7NG Group, that’s trying to move 600 families more than 20km away. They’re literally building around them now, cutting off their entrances and exits. They have gangsters. A few of us have already had to physically step in in their defense.”
An opposition MP and a notorious thorn in the side of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, Son Chhay has been fighting land-grabbing since at least 2000, when he found out that a piece of property he’d owned for five years was being eyed by developers; it was just outside of Siem Reap and he had planned to turn it into an agricultural training centre. After a convenient declaration was issued by the Council of Ministers, earmarking the area for a ‘hotel development’ zone, Son Chhay, along with 150 families had been told that if he moved out quietly, he would get a decent rate for the property.
“Cambodian property laws state that if the government buys private land they should be using it for the public interest, and they must pay the market price,” Son Chhay stressed. “If it was for schools or a road it would be different, but hotels? Why do we need them to build hotels when we Cambodians can do that?”
The families were offered between US$0.3 to US$2 per square metre, and Son Chhay himself was offered fifty cents. His land back then, he says was easily worth US$50 per sq metre, and now, having passed from the government-appointed Apsara Foundation to the Sokha Hotel Resort company and morphing into the luxury Angkor Resort Hotel, it’s easily worth twenty times that. After a messy, protracted fight, a third of the families managed to walk away with a figure slightly better than the original offer.
Many in Cambodia have been far less lucky. Following a violent eviction from Sambok Chap in Phnom Penh nearly a thousand families were dropped off at a field 22km from the city, with no shelter, electricity or running water – except for frequent ankle-deep floods. Now, two years later they still live in damp squalor. Other eviction victims have simply had to move on to the streets.
Perhaps more alarming is the dwindling democratic space left for Cambodians to protest in. While the government insists that Cambodia is a credible business environment, reports are on the rise of arbitrary arrests and beatings, residents being forced from their homes, and of property burned or confiscated. In Kampot province this June, eyewitnesses described a standoff between approximately 30 villagers and 100 military police; men and women were beaten unconscious and four were charged with stealing and willful damage to property (the result, say NGO reports, of a policeman’s mobile phone being grabbed, and land allotment signposts being pulled out from the ground).
In 2005 five people were shot dead during a forced eviction, as were two last November in Preah Vihear province, including the wife of a community representative. Those responsible are rarely charged. Ties remain uncomfortably tight between the ruling party and the tycoons that support it financially; it has been noted by the Asian Legal Rights Commission (ALRC) that 99% of judges in the country’s fledgling court system belong to the CPP.
Cambodia was one item on the agenda at the Human Rights Council’s Ninth session in Geneva last month and forced eviction topped many delegates’ list of concerns. “Land-grabbing is rife,” said the ALRC’s representative Michael Anthony, in his address. “In 2007 it affected more than 5,000 families who were forcibly evicted from their homes and land without just compensation. An estimated 150,000 Cambodians are currently at risk.”
The problem, says Dr Lao Mong Hay, former head of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, is how little organization there is in land ownership. After the war and Pol Pot’s four year course in intense and very bloody agrarian communism, those who had survived were given small plots of land to live from, but no title deeds. Sponsored attempts have been made to organize the land over the years but these, as Dr Lao discovered, come at a cost. “It was supposed to be free,” he says, when he went to register his own plot three years ago, “but at every step of the way, from the land officers to the registry office, a small bribe was needed, $10 here, then another $20, another $20. Then, to legalise the process it cost $70! The average Cambodian does not have that money.”
Villagers in rural areas are particularly vulnerable; whether along the south coast where the beaches are lucratively white and property has gone from $50 to $200 per square metre in the past year, or in remote rural areas, where space is snatched for logging and rubber plantations. In some cases businessmen have simply hired workmen to clear swathes of forestry land and threaten park rangers into submission. Few rural Cambodians know that they need to officially lay claim to their land and even if they did, the process is fraught with obstacles.
In Siem Reap – Cambodia’s second poorest province – an arm of the Cambodian NGO, LICADHO, tries to safeguard the rights of local farmers and residents through workshops. “They don’t really know their rights, so not many do complain,” says Sar Vannara, one of the four men in the small office, found along a dirt road near Angkor. It’s a big job – the province has close to a million people – and it’s not the safest of vocations. When asked if they’d been threatened over the years, the group broke into gales of laughter. “Of course!” said one, on his recovery. “We are here opposing the government.”
In 2004, shortly before his re-election, Prime Minister Hun Sen declared war on land-grabbers, identifying many in his own party. Several high profile officials, including an army major, tycoons and provincial governors, were arrested or fined, and forced to return thousands of hectares of land. But little is being done to educated Cambodians on their land rights and since Hun Sen’s re-election arrests have dwindled and land continues to be cleared. “He acts as a safety valve,” says Dr Lao. “When the pressure gets too strong he’ll step in. It’s not consistent.”
According to the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) at least 70,000 people are still at risk of eviction in Phnom Penh alone, most in the government’s battle against ‘squatters’; many Cambodians have lived in the same ramshackle dwellings since the end of the war, and as Phnom Penh’s fortunes rise, they are less welcome.
Boeng Kak lake, in the north of the city, is one example. Last month bulldozers started to work among its stilted waterside houses, home to about 4,000 families, after the government leased the property to a private developer for 99 years. The lake is to be filled in and turned into a tourism destination. Residents say they have been told little about what will become of their homes and businesses if this happens. Land laws in Cambodia state that in order for state public property to be leased it should be for a maximum of 15 years, and must keep its original function.
“If the government wishes to develop Boueng Kok Lake they should do so through a legal process,” says Dan Nicholson, Coordinator at COHRE. “The question is not just whether the level of compensation is adequate once people are forced off their land – it’s whether an eviction is justified in the first place.” Should this continue, both COHRE and Amnesty International warn that it could be the beginning of the biggest forced eviction since the Khmer Rouge lost power.
For things to change, says Dr Lao, land laws need to be respected. “Hun Sen needs to do more,” he says. “He should end the practice of using executive orders to adjudicate land disputes, and should instead utilize the due process of law. He should also cease his control of the courts of law, clean up their corruption, provide them with adequate resources and respect their judgments.”
Foreign investors, too, can make a difference, say the group at Licadho. They should ask more questions about where the land is coming from, and ask for proof that the original land owners were willing to sell.
But as Cambodia’s development continues to boom and little of the profit trickles down to Cambodians – the ones stuck in makeshift shelters on remote plots of land, or who wake each morning at home to the sound of encroaching bulldozers – Hun Sen may find it harder to ease the pressure indefinitely. “No one can rule forever,” says Son Chhay. “I have to be optimistic. Sooner or later the people will make decisions about the society they want, they will decide enough is enough. Then they will move to the streets.”