Progress or propaganda? Observers question City Hall's intentions at Borei Keila
Once trumpeted as the prototype for a new wave of progressive urban development in
Phnom Penh - the kind without squatters, evictions or protests - the Borei Keila
"land-sharing" project in Prampi Makara district is now likely to leave
some 200 families without homes.
Nuon Sarath and his family sit in a makeshift home in a bulldozed zone of Borei Keila. Life for nearly 200 families remains in limbo until City Hall makes a decision regarding their eligibility for new homes.
Under a 2003 deal signed off by Prime Minister Hun Sen, 1,776 families living on
the 14.6-hectare parcel near Olympic Stadium were to be given apartments in 10 six-story
buildings as compensation for their homes in the name of urban progress.
Since then, the deal has been heralded by the government, City Hall, and the media,
as a counterpoint to controversial evictions such as Koh Pich and Tonle Bassac. The
project has been held up by officials as a precedent for what will occur in the upcoming
Boeng Kak development.
But observers are now wondering if the project is truly a positive precedent, or
mere propaganda. Accusations of corrupt practices are rife and hundreds of expectant
families are living in squalor and facing an uncertain future.
The opening of the first three apartment buildings took place on March 23 - just
days after bulldozers had torn through homes on the southern edge of the construction
zone. The authorities wanted to remove the residents to "free land" in
the development zone in order to clear the area for the much-publicized ribbon-cutting.
The "free land" was, in fact, the Borei Keila dumpsite
The proposed relocation prompted local rights NGO Licadho and UN-Habitat to intervene.
With City Hall, the rights groups established a commission to determine the eligibility
of the families in question.
A public hearing process was set up with village chiefs, community representatives,
UN-Habitat, Licadho, and commune and district officials - with the final decisions
made by Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Mann Chhouen.
Di Yun, a "renter," has struggled to obtain the documentation to prove his family has lived in Borei Keila since 200. He is now uncertain if he will be given an apartment.
They first heard the cases of about 80 families who owned houses, from which 33 were
determined eligible and were immediately moved into the apartment buildings. They
joined the 296 families chosen by City Hall to be the first to receive apartments
through a lottery system.
"The initial hearing went very well," said Pierre Fallavier, UN-Habitat's
adviser to the municipality. "It was quite clear who was eligible and who was
a cheater. We were pleased with the process, but then they did not tell those who
were not eligible so they remain living in squalor expecting a decision."
Another 23 families living with HIV/AIDs were moved from the construction zone into
temporary housing - a green corrugated iron shed - adjacent to the site.
The commission then heard the cases of 91 families of renters and certified that
28 more families were eligible for flats in the new buildings. Some six other families
still needed to be heard, as well as the 23 families affected with HIV.
According to documents obtained by the Post, Chhouen approved the commission's findings
and the process was settled on March 29. The cases of the unscreened families were
to be heard at a later date.
Both Licadho and UN-Habitat pushed for the eligible families to be immediately moved
into the apartments. The municipality said they would wait until after the April
1 commune election for "technical reasons."
But nearly a month after the hearings, these families were still living in the rubble
at the construction zone's edge and had not been told the results of their hearings.
Fallavier claimed the municipality had failed to honor the decision to grant apartments
to the 28 families.
"The results of the hearings have not yet been made public as the Governor finally
refused to sign them," he said. "Although he agreed to the criteria in
2003, he now fears that 'giving' apartments to former renters would send a message
to all in Cambodia that they can get free apartments in Phnom Penh."
Fallavier said many of the 91 families heard by the commission had their names on
the original 2003 list of 1,776 families. He said that list "was now jealously
guarded by the authorities."
Licadho consultant Jason Barber said the municipality "back tracked" on
"We accept that not everybody is entitled to apartments, but we went through
a rigorous process to determine eligibility. At this stage we have 28 families living
in squalid conditions who should be given apartments," Barber said. "We
now have serious doubts about the sincerity of the municipality."
Chhoeun refused to comment on the fate of the 28 families.
"I went down to Borei Keila over Khmer New Year and took some rice to the people
and everybody was happy," he said on April 17. "Now, I'm preparing to go
to Japan for a poverty alleviation conference and I'm too busy to comment about the
families at this time."
Barber said the families living by the construction zone were suffering from unsafe
conditions and inadequate sanitation and hygiene.
Fallavier said the situation had become "extremely messy" and UN-Habitat
was disappointed that threats of evictions were now tarnishing Phnom Penh's "landmark"
development project. He said many villagers were afraid to leave the area for more
than a few hours at a time for fear that their names would be crossed off the eligibility
"It was not meant to be this way," Fallavier said. "Borei Keila was
a breakthrough project for Cambodia. There would be no squatters and no evictions."
"A major precedent"
Located on land belonging to the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports (MoEYS)
the Borei Keila development was the first in Prime Minister Hun Sen's new policy
of "on-site" developments.
Under the land-sharing arrangement, 2.6 hectares around the site was awarded to private
developer Phanimex to build apartments for sale. In return, the developer was required
to build 10 six-story apartments on a separate 2-hectare portion for the displaced
residents. The remaining 10 hectares was to be returned to MoEYS.
A 2003 survey determined that 1,776 families were eligible for the apartments in
the new housing complex. Homeowners, living "permanently" on the site,
and renters, who had been living permanently in the settlement since 2000, were eligible.
Fallavier said this was a major precedent.
"Previously, people in squatter communities simply didn't exist. They had no
legal rights and were simply forcibly evicted. Or there were disguised evictions:
the settlement would burn down and then the people were removed," Fallavier
said. "But now, for the first time, you have a project that recognizes these
people exist and have rights."
Fallavier said that despite an encouraging start, the landmark project has become
tainted by corruption.
"We're talking about squatter settlements here, and the difference between 'renter'
and 'owner' is extremely informal," Fallavier said. "If you arrive in one
of these settlements and want to put a shack up, you pay the neighbors, the local
officials, the village chief, and the police for protection. Basically, you pay everyone."
"Then if you are good community member and continue to pay, after a few years
you might get your name on the family book and you become part of the community.
But, if you're Vietnamese, Khmer Krom, living with HIV/AIDS, or a single mother living
with children - or you're simply the poorest of the poor and unable to contribute
- then however long you live there, it's possible you will never obtain the status
of 'owner.' You simply don't exist," Fallavier added
Fallavier said people could live in the area for many years before they were given
the requisite documentation, making it extremely difficult to establish when a person
arrived. According to Fallavier, ownership status depended largely on the word of
the village chief and being an "owner" simply meant having a family book,
which gave residents more bargaining leverage.
Men Kim Leang, 62, a longtime renter now facing eviction to the dump, explained that
renters are excluded from the community.
"The chief says he doesn't know the renting families," she said. "He
only knows the owners. None of the renters in this village are community members.
Before, I heard it was free to get a family book, but now I have heard they sometimes
ask for $50."
Residents of the "green shed," where the 23 HIV/AIDS families are housed,
said they were excluded from the hearing process and were unsure how long they would
have to remain in the over-heated and unsanitary corrugated hangar.
"We have the right documents but no one has come to ask us anything," Penh
Sim, 47, a resident said. "We feel abandoned. It's like a prison here and we
are losing hope that we will get an apartment."
Barber said the entire hearing process is now in doubt.
"Licadho's continued involvement in this case depends entirely on the municipality
honoring its decision to grant the 28 eligible families apartments," he said.