Railway community leader Sok Kim Lui (right) with the site-sharing map for Hassan. Khat Khin (left) and May Thouak look on.
ok Kim Lui points to a mature coconut tree growing beside his rickety house near
Phnom Penh's railway station.
"I planted that tree in 1979 [and] I am not going to leave this place,"
Kim Lui is part of a small community resisting the seemingly irresistible rise of
developers in Phnom Penh. His home for the past 24 years, on land owned by the Ministry
of Transport adjacent to the Russian Boulevard, lies on a ten hectare site slated
In May last year workmen arrived and began erecting a perimeter fence around the
small lake used by the "railway community" for washing, bathing and water
run-off. Only then did residents realize their homes were under threat.
The developer is Othsman Hassan, the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) MP for Phnom
Penh, and his Hassan Cambodia Development Company.
"In the first phase we are planning to build a shopping mall, financial center
and some condominiums," says Hassan of the project, which is backed by investors
from China, Malaysia, South Korea, Thailand and Japan.
Hassan took a 70-year lease on the site in 1997 when he agreed to pay $100,000 a
year for the right to the property.
That makes it much cheaper than most other land in Phnom Penh, says Samreth Sokheng
of the Urban Resource Center (URC), a local NGO that works in impoverished areas
of the capital.
"I'm not a businessman but it seems very cheap," he says. "If we compare
it to the land around Psar Thmei, it's a very low price."
Hassan defends the low rent as a development incentive.
"This land is not good for the environment so my company will give yearly rent
and create tax revenue for the government," he says. "We will create good
buildings and that place will become a good area and create many jobs."
And while some developers enlist the police or use their high-level contacts to intimidate
people out of their homes, Hassan has tried to offer the community some compensation.
Each family was offered a plot of land on a relocation site near Phnom Penh International
Airport. Hassan says he will spend $700,000 on relocation costs.
Around half of the original 550 families have already accepted the relocation package,
but the residents who have stayed behind say the low-lying land is ill-prepared and
come the rainy season is likely to flood.
They dismissed his offer to move, and claim that only those who rented cheap properties
accepted the relocation package. Even then, they say, many have already left the
"We don't know how to make a living out there," says Kim Lui of the relocation
site. "We want to develop on this site".
The 67-year-old father of five is a retired railway technician, and was among the
first six families to settle the site in 1979. He was the village chief from then
until 1997. Other families have lived in the area since the 1960s.
"We just want to exchange the land. If we can get the land then we will ask
the NGOs and others to help us with infrastructure and use the community funds to
develop the area," says Kim Lui. "We will build it by ourselves. We only
need the land from the company, not their help."
And in a sign of the way development projects may proceed in the future, the people
of the railway community have, with the help of local NGOs, taken an innovative approach.
Rather than leaving the area for the barren relocation site, they offered to consolidate
their community into a small sector of Hassan's land holding. Of the ten hectare
site, the residents are seeking just over two hectares. The remainder would be left
free for the construction of shopping centers and apartments.
Young architects and planners with the Urban Poor Development Fund drew up development
plans of their own that include housing for all the remaining families as well as
resource centers for the whole community.
The residents met with Hassan in March to present their plan, but he remains unimpressed.
"From my side I do not agree with their plan. The community must understand
that this land belongs to the government and the government will not allow them to
stay there," says Hassan.
The municipality's chief of cabinet, Mann Chhoeurn, says the city has no objection
to the community's on-site development plan and has forwarded it to the national
government for a decision.
In the meantime the residents are waiting and hoping, their stay tinged by fear that
force or fire may be used to get them out, a common worry in squatter communities
across the capital.
The fear of eviction is a key finding in a recent study that examined the situation
of the urban poor in 569 communities containing more than 65,000 families in seven
city khans. It was conducted in January by Solidarity for the Urban Poor Federation
(SUPF), a local NGO, and found extremely high rates of insecurity among the city's
In Dangkao commune, which is in khan Dangkor, 90 percent of residents expect eviction
sometime in the future. It also found that every family living on public land in
Russey Keo is subject to future development plans that carry the threat of eviction.
URC's Samreth Sokheng says he used to believe the poor needed access to housing and
land. Now he believes that comes second to access to employment. Those who cannot
find work tend to head back to the city from the relocation sites.
"Around 19 communities have been relocated so far, but already 50 percent have
come back to the city," he says. "Whether the land is good or not is not
important to the people. Transport and employment are very important. If they earn
5,000 riel but have to spend 3,000 riel to travel to the site, then it's not good
His thoughts are borne out by the SUPF survey: Despite the fact that there have been
several evictions along the riverside in recent years, the population of Chamkar
Morn district has actually grown since the last survey was conducted in 1999.
The master plan for developing the city is scheduled to be completed by 2005 and
implemented over 15 years. Mann Chhoeurn says the plan will identify zones for housing,
industrial and commercial development and will "definitely" allocate land
for the poor.
And while relocations are expensive and rarely effective, the land-sharing approach
has worked in Thailand for more than a decade.
A small group of NGOs has been pioneering that approach in Phnom Penh. Residents
at Borei Keila near the Olympic stadium came up with a land-sharing agreement similar
to the one developed by the railway community. Their plan would free most of their
current neighborhood for Chinese developers who have their eye on the area for a
SUPF has also invested its time in on-site improvement projects, which are developed
through a grassroots democratic process.
In Ros Reay, which lies behind the French Embassy, a group of more than 60 households
met last year to set their own development priorities. Improved drainage, wider and
better roads, and more trees emerged as the community's goals.
Today a concrete drainage pipe with around a dozen drainage points has been laid
beneath the community's streets. Locals sacrificed sections of their land to widen
the streets, they planted trees and are set to paint their houses. The community
has almost finished laying a concrete slab road that should last for a decade.
Despite the fact that the average daily earnings of the residents is just $2.60,
the community raised close to $10,000 through their own contributions and with the
help of the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights, a regional NGO. They carry out the
Community leader Pha Saream hopes the improvements will protect the area from developers.
"Everybody came back after the war so it was like a new beginning," she
says. "It is the people's right to live there, but if we're talking about the
law then maybe it's different."