Group 78 residents, rights groups accuse govt of deception, threats.
TWO days after Friday's eviction of the Group 78 community, former residents said they were struggling to rebuild their lives in their new homes, with many accusing the government of having conducted an intimidation campaign to force them from their valuable Bassac riverfront property.
"Our 12 family members are now living in a small rented room," said Sim Nhim, 60, adding that she had lived in Group 78 for more than 25 years. "We have no choice but to live here because [the government] demolished our homes."
She said she believed none of the residents had wanted to leave Group 78 but that the threat of an overwhelming police presence on eviction day "intimidated people into tearing down their own homes".
"We have empty hands, so we could not resist the authorities," she said.
Kheng Soroth, another former resident, said Sunday that City Hall had duped him into leaving his large house in Group 78 and that his family had been forced to take shelter in a squalid rental apartment.
"It is difficult for me to survive now because I have no money to buy a house," he said.
At dawn on Friday, police in riot gear marched into what remained of Group 78, a community that once held more than 80 families. A convoy of trucks carrying scores of demolition workers rolled in close behind them.
By Friday afternoon, the four holdout families had left, and workers in matching red T-shirts had finished dismantling Group 78, leaving only a few wooden poles poking out of the mud.
Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Mann Chhoeun has said that municipal officials want to develop the Bassac riverfront site to make it more attractive to tourists. But many residents said they had occupied their land since the 1980s, which, if true, would allow them to apply to become the legal owners of their respective plots.
In stark contrast to claims from residents, Mann Chhoeun said Friday that all Group 78 residents had agreed to let the government tear their homes down.
"Today, we evicted people without violence, because all the residents agreed to have their houses torn down," he said, adding that City Hall would give books, food and gifts to the families.
Though the eviction was nonviolent, residents and observers said the government's previous verbal threats combined with Friday's show of armed force intimidated the residents into leaving their homes and prevented last-minute negotiations from taking place.
According to an independent property valuation conducted by Bonna Realty Group, the 260-metre-by-45-metre plot of land next to the Australian Embassy is worth more than US$15 million, or about $1,300 per square metre.
On Friday morning, the six families who had previously refused to accept government compensation met with Mann Chhoeun and discussed potential packages. While their community was being torn down, the families agreed to accept government money, though one family told the Post that City Hall tricked them into leaving their home.
Three families will receive $20,000, while two families agreed to accept $9,000, said resident Kheng Soroth.
But Kheng Soroth said City Hall reneged on an agreement made with his family. He said Mann Chhoeun promised his family $20,000 during the negotiations. After the home was demolished, however, he was told he would get only $8,000, which he said Sunday he expects he will never receive.
Resident Hem Many said she hoped one day to get back at municipal officials responsible for the destruction of her home.
"In the future, if I become rich or a high-ranking officer, I will demolish the former high-ranking officers' houses so they will know how it feels when they meet that situation," she said.
If i become rich... i will demolish the former high-ranking officers’ houses.
Local NGOs and international rights organisations strongly condemned the Group 78 eviction, while embassies and donors released a joint statement Thursday night calling for a moratorium on evictions until a better mechanism for resolving land disputes is put in place.
The statement - from six embassies and five international organisations - did not call any of Phnom Penh's previous land evictions illegal, nor did it mention Group 78 specifically. It did say that Cambodia's policies and practices "do not make effective use of the procedures and institutions allowed for in Cambodian law".
The group's choice to release the statement right as the community's houses were being dismantled and its refusal to condemn the Cambodian government in harsher terms were criticised by some civil society groups.
Dan Nicholson, a coordinator at the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), said the statement was "completely irrelevant" for Group 78. David Pred, director of Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia, said the statement would "ring hollow" if it was not "backed up by real consequences".
Others said they approved of the statement, and Naly Pilorge, director of the rights group Licadho, said she hoped it would be "the basis for discussions with government and relevant government institutions to put in place mechanisms to resolve land disputes and procedures to relocate people".