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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - More Bassac squatters face eviction

More Bassac squatters face eviction

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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

them."

"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

Group.

"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,

Miloon Kothari.

"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."

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