A YEAR ago this week, police and red-shirted demolition workers arrived at dawn on a Friday morning to clear out a tract of land in Tonle Bassac commune known as Group 78. Once a close-knit community of street vendors and civil servants that contained 146 families, the land is now empty, a fenced-in plot of grass and sand.
On Saturday, former Group 78 residents plan to reunite and demonstrate at their old home, a year to the day after the last families were forced to abandon the site and scatter to the outskirts of the city.
Most families were given US$8,000 in compensation, a sum that former residents said this week had not been enough for new homes in the capital.
“I can’t even buy part of a house with that,” said Sim Vireak, who moved with his wife and three children to a shack near an abandoned railway in Russey Keo district’s Tuol Sangke commune.
“If we had been offered proper compensation from the government, we would have been fine with leaving. But with $8,000, what can I buy?”
Lim Sambo, another former resident, said he been faced with no other choice but to take the compensation because authorities would have removed him and his family whether he had accepted or not.
“With only $8,000, I could only move somewhere very far away,” he said. “It’s very difficult to live there. At Group 78 we had water and electricity, and it was very close to the city. Now we use well water, and even though the government promised it to us, we still have no electricity.”
Rights workers said yesterday that most Group 78 residents now live in remote resettlement areas such as Dangkor district’s Trapaing Anchanh, some 25 kilometres from the city.
Janice Beanland, spokeswoman for Amnesty International Southeast Asia, said that their situations had likely deteriorated in the past year.
“It is often the case that families who have gone to a site such as [Trapaing Anchanh] find that they are not able to make a living because there are not the same opportunities for work, and it is too far and costly to travel daily into Phnom Penh,” she said.
“Generally families find themselves living in greater poverty, with worse access to drinking water, electricity and poor sanitation. As a consequence they can suffer from more health problems.”
Throughout the protracted dispute over the land, authorities emphasised to residents that it belonged to the state. Since the eviction, some of the land has been used to expand a road leading to the Tonle Sap river.
The rest, however, is reportedly being readied for private development, an issue that will be a central focus of this Saturday’s demonstration.
Mann Chhouen, the former Phnom Penh deputy governor who was in charge of the Group 78 evictions, said yesterday that he didn’t know what company would be given rights to develop the land, but that it was zoned to become either a business centre or an apartment complex.
He reiterated his previous argument that the families had no right to the land because it was state-owned.
“City Hall had to relocate them to the outskirts of the city because they were living in slums on state property,” he said.
But Man Vuthy, legal coordinator for the Community Legal Education Centre, which represents the families, said that because the Group 78 residents had lived on the land for over five years, they had legal rights to it.
“The evicted people have a legal claim to possession rights based on the 2001 Land Law. But when the Phnom Penh Municipality deals with them, they don’t care about the law – they only care about their own policy,” he said.
As the July 17 eviction was being carried out last year, six embassies and five international organisations, including the United Nations and the World Bank, released a joint statement calling for a moratorium on land evictions until a better mechanism for resolving land disputes was put in place.
In the absence of such a mechanism, land conflicts have continued, and Beanland said yesterday that several demonstrations had suggested mounting frustration on the part of affected families.
“There seem to be increasing numbers of communities who are bravely protesting and speaking out for justice, in the face of many obstacles,” she said.
“The recent attempt to deliver a petition to the prime minister, with 60,000 thumb-prints from communities in different provinces around Cambodia affected by land disputes and evictions, is one example. This reflects the enormous difficulties faced by thousands of ordinary Cambodians.”
Former Group 78 resident Kaeng Soroth said he is still trying to collect money promised to him last July. His family was one of four that refused to leave even as the government was dismantling the houses around them.
He said Mann Chhouen eventually offered the families $20,000 to vacate their homes, which they accepted. He still has not been paid.
Since last July, he has been forced to move in with his brother. Still unmarried at 36, he said it will be difficult for him to start a family without a house of his own.
“I’m worried about the future,” he said. “When you don’t have shelter, it makes it difficult to live.”