Police, military police and RCAF soldiers beat unarmed villagers during a violent forced eviction of more than 100 families at Spean Ches village, Sihanoukville municipality on April 20 this year.
The quiet fishing community of Spean Ches located on an idyllic beach front eight
kilometers from the center of Sihanoukville until recently was home to more than
The quiet was disrupted abruptly in September 2006 when the residents, many of whom
lived in Spean Ches since the 1980s, received an eviction notice. In April, soldiers
and police arrived to drive out 105 families who watched helplessly as authorities
demolished 26 of their homes, burned down 86 others, and destroyed their personal
A year later the families live under tarpaulins beside the land where the homes once
stood. The land is now a heavily guarded empty plot. Their right to ownership has
never been conclusively dealt with in court and they received no compensation for
From Siem Reap to Sihanoukville, villages like Spean Ches are undergoing demolition
as swaths of land are expropriated for redevelopment. As Cambodia's land values soar,
commercial interests have become more powerful, making forced and often violent evictions
resulting in injury or deaths all too common.
Cambodia has no national legal framework addressing the rights of evictees in an
"We have always simply used the policy of resettlement from the donor agency
funding the development project," said Sam Nang, deputy director of the resettlement
unit, Ministry of Economy and Finance.
A new project - technical assistance to the Kingdom of Cambodia for enhancing the
resettlement legal framework and institutional capacity - supported by the Asian
Development Bank (ADB) is in the forefront of efforts to develop such a law. The
proposed legislation in the form of a subdecree is currently in draft form. The first
draft of the subdecree was made public in May of this year, and a workshop was held
in June at which civil society members were invited to offer comments on the draft.
A revised version of the sub-decree was expected in July, but has not yet been released.
"The acquisition of land is going to take place," said Arjun Goswami, country
director of the ADB. "The question is what protections can you install to help
He said a shift from relying on the resettlement policies of individual donors -
to a national standard is a major step forward.
However the draft "sub-decree on the socio economic impacts of development projects"
has generated widespread criticism from human rights groups and NGO officials who
say it is not up to international standards and in fact would just give more credibility
and power to do forced evictions.
The Housing Rights Task Force, a coalition of local and international housing rights
NGOs, said in a statement that the legislation will "legitimize forced evictions."
"The sub-decree licenses the use of force to take any land if a government agency
decides the land is being taken for a purpose in the general public or national interest,"
said David Pred, country director of rights NGO Bridges Across Borders (BAB).
Others said although the draft states that "replacement cost" compensation
must be provided, it has no teeth to make it happen.
"There is no accountability mechanism to make sure this is fair," said
Mike Bernstein, legal advisor at the Cambodian Legal Education Center (CLEC). "The
government sets the price. The body that evaluates what land is worth is the Ministry
of Finance, not an independent body."
The lack of clear rules about valuation has come up in the case of the current stand
off between residents of Phnom Penh's Group 78 and City Hall. The community's 45-by-200
meters strip of land on the Tonle Bassac is worth about $550 per square meter on
the open real estate market, according to a Bunna Realty survey.
City Hall has offered each of the 146 Group 78 families $500 - plus a 5-by-12-meter
plot of land at an unspecified resettlement site outside of Phnom Penh. According
to Meng Kheang, Group 78 community representative, fair and just compensation would
actually equal more than $4.8 million.
"You have to be realistic," said Goswami. "There is no point in having
Rolls Royce standards and then breaking them all the time," he said. "A
sub-decree can't roll back constitutional protections. Can a constitution be abridged
by a sub-decree on resettlement policy? It is simply not possible."
He said that land value issues are often very complex and not all countries have
official valuation methods. "It is a question of building in safeguards and
making sure these valuations are made with the best standards, not having many conflicting
valuations," he said.
The sub decree is limited to land acquired by the government for development projects
in the public interest. But many are concerned that the definition of "public
interest" is overly broad.
The dispute comes at a crucial juncture in Cambodia's land crisis where a surge in
highly visible mass evictions has attracted the attention of nearly everyone, including
the diplomatic community.
"The British Embassy remains interested in and concerned about the cases of
forced eviction that do not appear to follow due process, and where community and
families livelihoods are placed at risk," said a British Embassy spokesperson.
"We believe that it is important that Cambodia has a full legal framework governing
re-settlement policies and that this is properly implemented."
Manfred Hornung, legal advisor at local rights NGO Licadho, said violent raids on
communities undergoing forced eviction are taking place in an environment of complete
impunity in terms of illegal acts committed by security forces.
"None of the officials involved in the burning of houses, beating of villagers
and destruction of private property in Spean Ches has ever been subjected to criminal
or disciplinary proceedings," he said.
In fact the opposite happened. A two day trial in Sihanoukville Municipal Court resulted
in the convictions of nine of the villagers on charges of battery with injury and
destruction of property during the evictions. Five others were acquitted. There was
been no investigation into the lawfulness of the actions by members of the security
forces who performed the evictions. Goswami, meanwhile, said the sub-decree is no
"This sub-decree can't solve all of the land problems in Cambodia," he