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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Group 78 starts evacuation

Group 78 starts evacuation

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Children stand by as construction workers dismantle homes at Phnom Penh’s Group 78 community Thursday morning.

THE curtain appears to be falling on the besieged Group 78 community's protracted struggle with municipal authorities, with 50 of the remaining 66 households beginning their slow exodus from the site Thursday after accepting compensation packages.

Following negotiations with city authorities Thursday morning, 50 families agreed to accept US$8,000 in compensation for their land, and evacuated the site as red-shirted construction workers began dismantling their homes.

As many of the community's houses were reduced to piles of lumber and sheet metal, the 16 remaining households stood firm in their demand for market-value compensation, despite official threats of eviction if they remained at the site this morning.

"I don't care how many families are left because we are a democracy," community representative Lim Sambo said at the site Thursday.

Resident Kim Vorn, 58, said the threat of eviction, even in light of the violent relocation of the nearby Dey Krahorm community in January, had only strengthened his resolve.

"I don't care about tomorrow because I want to know whether this country respects the law or whether it just uses its own power," he told the Post.
"I am happy to allow them to demolish my house, and I will leave without saying anything."

The government claims residents are living illegally on land owned by the state and by the local developer Sour Srun Enterprises.

Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Mann Chhoeun said after Thursday's negotiations that he was "surprised" by the number of residents who accepted City Hall's compensation package, and praised them for agreeing to a "win-win" solution.

"I am proud of the Group 78 people," he said. "We have found a middle way of settling the dispute. The people in the community have a good understanding."

He added that the turn of events meant that authorities would no longer need to apply "administrative measures" today, adding that today would instead be a "humanity day", during which officials would hand out clothes and books to displaced families.

"Police can put their guns down and help the people move," he said.

But housing-rights advocates say the residents, who lack land titles but have claimed ownership under the Kingdom's 2001 Land Law, were given little choice in the matter.

Man Vuthy, a legal coordinator at the Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC), said 24 families had submitted final offers - ranging from $20,000 to $40,000 - after an invitation from City Hall, but that they were rejected later in the day.

"They scared the people by saying how many police and military police would go to the site tomorrow at 6am," he said.

Bunn Rachana, a monitor for the Housing Rights Task Force, also said the residents had been "scared" by officials, adding: "If they did not agree to accept the compensation, the authorities would have forced them to move by police power."

Call for moratorium
International donors including the UN, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and seven foreign governments issued a joint statement Thursday evening calling on the government to halt forced evictions across the country until a "fair and transparent mechanism" for resolving land disputes is in place.

The statement, which did not mention Group 78 specifically, said urban communities were vulnerable to eviction as a result of "policies and practices that do not reflect good international practice in dispute resolution and resettlement, and do not make effective use of the procedures and institutions [of] Cambodian law".

Pen Saron, a resident who agreed to the $8,000 compensation offer, said he had seen enough land disputes to know that Group 78 could never win.

"I have not slept well for four years because I have been afraid that they will burn down my house as they have other communities," he said.

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