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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Private profit versus public gain

Private profit versus public gain

The pace of evictions continues to accelerate across Cambodia. From Siem Reap to

Sihanoukville, houses are being razed, lands seized, and communities uprooted.

The scale of the problem has some experts questioning whether the forced

evictions are a coordinated government strategy of facilitating private

appropriation of land at the expense of the poor.

The 45-by-200 meters

strip of land known as Group 78 in Tonle Bassac is worth about $550 per square

meter on the open real estate market, according to a Bunna Realty survey. The

survey was commissioned by Group 78 residents when City Hall first threatened

them with eviction in July 2006.

"City Hall has to pay $4,873,082 as fair

and just compensation to the residents [if they want to evict us]," said Khim

Meng Kheang, Group 78 community representative. "We are entitled to fair and

just compensation under the law."

But City Hall has offered each of the

146 Group 78 families just $500 and a 5-by-12-meter plot of land at an

unspecified resettlement site outside of Phnom Penh.

"City Hall is

trying to use their power to put pressure on the community," said Noun Sokchea,

a lawyer at the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC) who is representing

Group 78. "It would be better if private companies would negotiate with the

communities directly. With City Hall involved, the negotiations are balanced

against the people."

Group 78 representative Say Sophal said that after

the June 2006 forced eviction in neighboring Sambok Chab, City Hall announced

that Group 78's land was state property that has been illegally occupied by the

community. Residents were told to prepare to move to a resettlement site on the

outskirts of the city, he said.

The community's lawyers say the

municipality has failed to produce documentation proving that Group 78 belongs

to the state. The community says it has documents showing they have occupied the

land since the early 1980s.

The 2001 Land Law gives ownership rights to

those who have occupied land five years.

On July 16, 2006, City Hall

distributed eviction notices to Group 78 residents for evictions slated on July

21 2006. The notice gave "beautification and development" as reasons for the

eviction, but it made no mention of City Hall's initial assertations that the

land belonged to the state.

"When the deadline is over the Municipality

will take strict measures and will not be responsible for loss, damage or other

incidents," the notice read.

Althouth the threatened eviction never

materialized, negotiations have stalled.

City Hall has refused repeated

requests from Group 78's lawyers to meet and discuss the case. Though the

threatened eviction never materialized, over the last year the community has

received a string of eviction notices, regular visits from municipal officials

and military personnel, and repeated requests to sign away their land, said

Sokchea.

One of the key problems with the implementation of Cambodia's

2001 Land Law is the lack of clarity over what is and is not state land, said

Yeng Virak, president of CLEC.

The government does have the right to

evict people from either state or private land for "public interest" purposes,

but Article 44 of the Cambodian constitution stipulates that they must pay

victims fair and just compensation in advance.

The compensation packages

being offered by City Hall could hardly be described "fair and just," especially

as the overwhelming body of evidence indicates Group 78's land is not state

property and that it will not be used for the "public interest", said Sokchea.

The Group 78 strip of land does not fit any of the categories -- such as

roads, rivers, and public parks -- defined as state land in the 2001 Cambodian

Land Law. In fact, all the parcels of land adjacent to Group 78 are all

privately owned - by the Australian Embassy, Kith Meng, and Sour Srun

Enterprises.

The predicament highlights another key problem with

implementation of the 2001 law - the lack of clarity over what "public interest"

means.

Group 78 residents have expressed fear they would be pressured off

their land by City Hall in the name of "public interest," and then later find

their land was sold on to a private company. If this were to happen, City Hall,

not the Group 78 residents, would reap the benefits of the high market value of

the land.

"According to the law, land can only be taken [by City Hall]

for public use," said Sokchea. "City Hall has no right at all to interfere in

conflicts between people and companies. I think if a private company [who wanted

to buy Group 78's land] sat and talked to the community directly, with no

government intervention, things would be better."

Group 78, frustrated by

City Hall's refusal to discuss their case and the lack of response to their

complaints, have devised a new way to fight their eviction.

The

community sought the help of architectural students from the Norton University

of Phnom Penh and created an 'onsite' upgrading plan which will, they say,

satisfy the municipality's professed need for "beautification and development."

"Our plan is in line with the Prime Minister's speech that supports and

encourages 'onsite' development in Phnom Penh," said Khim Meng Kheang, Group 78

representative.

There has been no official government response to Group

78's onsite upgrading plan. And a new law, currently being drafted by the

Ministry of Finance, looks set to pave the way for the government to rapidly

confiscate land if it is needed for "public interest."

This could

prevent communities, who may in the future find themselves in the same position

as Group 78, from having time to mount a legal challenge.

"My concern is

that new law could allow them to confiscate land before the actual status of the

land [whether it is state land and will be developed in the public interest or

private land which could then be re-sold] has been established," said

Virak.

The law says the state will pay the costs of the relocation

itself, but residents will not be compensated for the value of their land. If

the law were to come into effect, this clause would mean that Group 78, if

evicted as City Hall claims for "public interest purposes" would not be entitled

to the $4.8 million their land is worth.

"The country need laws for

development but development for whom?" said Virak. "If you pay only relocation

costs but no compensation for the land then you will make the affected

community's living condition worse. This is wrong. After all, the state has a

legal responsibility for the social welfare of the people, it can't just take

land from them and send them anywhere."

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