Village 78, a narrow strip of land on the edge of the former Sambok Chab squatter
site by the Tonle Bassac, has been declared "public state land" and the
102 families living on it, who have legal titles going back to UNTAC days, will be
forced to leave.
A former Sambok Chab villager carries a small child through ankle-deep water at the renters' relocation site at Kouk Roka 22km outside Phnom Penh.
"They will soon be removed as they live in anarchy on state land," Phnom
Penh Municipality deputy governor Pa Socheatevong said. "We are looking into
providing them land in Dangkor."
The declaration that the strip, in places less than 50 metres wide and surrounded
by private land, is "public state land" that cannot be privately owned
seems the latest tool the government is using to evict poor people from prime central
city land worth hundreds of dollars a square meter.
Phnom Penh's most recent large-scale eviction - of the Sambok Chab squatter community
from their riverside slum - typifies the manner in which evictions are being handled
throughout Cambodia - and especially in its urban centers.
Despite pleas from local activists and international leaders for community consultations
and adequate compensation, the valuable riverside real estate was cleared for developers,
and the squatters relocated to two resettlement sites about 22 km outside the city.
The less-then-pleasant eviction process culminated on June 6, as hundreds of police
and military police with automatic weapons, electric batons and tear gas stormed
the village and removed its most reluctant residents. The removal earned the eye
of international media and drew the concern of civil society activists and international
leaders ranging from Kem Sokha to Kofi Annan.
Yet when Sambok Chab's eviction is viewed as part of an ongoing process that began
with Koh Pich, and in light of the ad hoc and untransparent procedures used in both
cases, an underlying logic is revealed.
"Under the guise of economic development they are clearing away all the residents
from the area," said Henry Hwang, Attorney Adviser for the Public Interest Legal
Advocacy Project (PILAP). "And they are grasping at straws to find ways to evict
"The strategy is to take all the land in the area," said Kek Galabru, President
of Licadho. "I was so afraid when they started to evict [Sambok Chab] that they
would take it all [including Village 78] and they have."
The residents of Village 78 have legal documents to their land that date back to
the UNTAC period, Hwang said.
"They [the government authorities] knew they would have a problem as these people
have legal documents," he said. "Again, they are just coming up with reasons
to evict them."
The land in this area is valuable and the government wants it all, Galabru. said
"Why has the government said it is 'public state land?' To be able to evacuate
the people from it again," she said. "I believe it is worth at least $500
to $600 per square meter."
High land prices mean there are huge profits to be made, and a local human rights
group expressed concern that this would encourage corruption.
"I worry that the state, having declared this land to be 'state public property'
will later sell it to a private company," said Pa Ngoun Teang, Deputy Director
of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. "I worry about corruption - there
might be manipulation of land ownership."
While the squatters' eviction from prime river-side real estate may be inevitable
as Phnom Penh develops, it is the discrepancy between the manner in which the squatters
have been treated and the Cambodian government's professed commitments to protecting
its citizens which has attracted fierce criticism from rights groups.
"In terms of the Tonle Bassac case we are deeply concerned that the people were
not consulted, that time was not taken to assess the number of people who had titles
to their land or who were renting," said Naly Pilorge, Director of Licardo.
"The process was very badly done."
The two sites to which the Sambok Chab squatters were relocated - one site for land
owners, one for renters - had no proper infrastructure installed said Pilorge.
"The renters were sent off to a mud puddle," she said. "With the relocation
sites, there is some serious infrastructure missing."
Pech Phy, a resident of the Ampov or Sugarcane village in the Tonle Bassac slum,
was not informed of her eviction before being forced to dismantle her home under
threat of it being bulldozed by authorities.
Unceremoniously bundled into a truck by local authorities, she endured a long, nerve-wracking
ride during which she had no idea where she was being taken. She ended up at the
renters' relocation site 22km outside Phnom Penh where she is now living under a
tarpaulin, ankle-deep in filthy water.
"The police treated me like I was treated under Pol Pot," she said. "I
am here with nothing; we will all die here of starvation and cold."
The most recent evictions in Phnom Penh have not been cases of the government evicting
people from state land - they are corporations evicting squatters from private land.
Unlike the government, corporations are not obliged to concern themselves with the
nuances of protocol, said Lim Phai, chair of the management team at the Urban Sector
"The government has ratified certain conventions, for example which oblige the
state to ensure people live above a certain basic standard," said Phai. "Private
companies have not."
There are currently no guidelines in Cambodia that stipulate how private companies
should evict squatters from their land, said Saroeun Soush, managing director Asia
Real Property Company.
"If the government wants your land to do something with then they must pay compensation
before they take it from you," he said.
"For Sambok Chab, the government had sold the land. It was not state land, it
was private land. So now, it is the company who decides how to deal with the squatters."
In any country in the world squatters are liable to eviction if they are occupying
privately owned real estate.
"In the US it is possible to evict people and every year millions are evicted
and do become homeless," said Ken Fernandes of the Stop Evictions organisation.
"[But] in most places private companies cannot just evict people - plans are
put forward to local councils for approval, publicly discussed, and if they are seen
to be having adverse impacts on people then they are not approved."
But in Cambodia, the current overlap of interests between the business and political
elites erodes the likelihood of citizens being able to use the political system to
either challenge their evictions, or indeed, participate in urban planning decisions
that affect them said the Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing,
"One of the biggest problems is that the main political and economic actors
are also the main land and estate speculators," it said. "Therefore, it
becomes difficult to determine sustainable objectives for the development of the
city. The urban poor are the primary victims of these dubious practices."
"People everywhere face the same problem," said Yeng Virak of the Community
Legal Education Center (CLEC). "They live on their land for a long time and
then one day they are forcibly evicted - and moved to places where there are no facilities,
no ways of earning a living."
Just off Sothearos Boulevard, and nestled between shops selling ornate furniture
for Phnom Penh mansions, lies a muddy, pot-holed lane leading to the "Happy
Community," or Village 8. Well-kept wooden houses line the orange dirt road
and the wholesome smell of frying bananas fills the air.
But the humble prosperity of the Happy Community may soon be shattered. The recent
forced evictions of the Koh Pich islanders, the subsequent removal of Sambok Chab
villagers just down the road from Village 8, and the announced eviction of the inhabitants
of Village 78 nearby, have left an ominous precedent lingering in the air.
Residents, rights groups and real estate experts all predict that this archetypal
Cambodian village on the banks of the Tonle Bassac will be the next victim of Phnom
Penh's property development boom.
"After the eviction in Sambok Chab the authorities came and registered all the
houses in the Happy Community," said local resident Tan Phally, 44. "I
am not sure when we will be evicted - we will just wait and see."
A large cement wall marks out the huge swath of land next to the village that is
owned by a private company. The company has been pumping sand from the Bassac to
fill in the low lying land and has already come into conflict with local residents.
It looks set to be a David and Goliath run-in.
"Last month, they spilled sand onto a villager's plot - the villager complained
and the private company called the police," said Phally. "But we all went
out in a big group so the police withdrew quickly. We like living here - we will
all protest if they try to take our land."