It is remarkable that Municipality representatives have stated that the wholesale destruction of the Dey Krahorm community was not an eviction [Phnom Penh Post, January 24, 2009]. I agree, however, that "eviction" is not the best way to describe Saturday morning's events. A more accurate description would be grand theft. The 7NG company grabbed 3.6 hectares of prime city-centre real estate, valued at US$44 million, with the assistance of police and other armed government forces. The homes and many of the personal belongings of community residents were demolished by company bulldozers and looted by those carrying out the demolitions. It is not surprising that this process began in the dead of night and that the area was sealed off by the authorities in an apparent attempt to hide this flagrant crime from the watchful eyes of journalists and human rights workers.
Media not telling full story
What is most unfortunate is that the media has not only failed to tell the full story of this gross and criminal violation of human rights and Cambodian law, but it has adopted the language of the perpetrators in describing the victims. Words like "squatters", "slum" and "controversial neighbourhood", which have been used to describe Dey Krahorm, give false credence to the justifications used by those responsible for this crime and deny victims' rights.
Let's set the record straight. The land that was grabbed on Saturday morning rightfully belongs to more than 150 poor families who have refused to sell their homes to 7NG for the pittance that was offered to them. Most of these families have the documentation to prove their possession rights under the 2001 Land Law. Moreover, these families were beneficiaries of the Social Land Concession granted to the entire community by the Council of Ministers in 2003, and the Development Plan, which called for a land-sharing arrangement with a private company in exchange for onsite upgrading.
To justify their claims over the land, the 7NG company relies on a dubious agreement signed with former community representatives to exchange the villagers' homes for flats at the Damnak Treyoeng site outside Phnom Penh. This agreement was immediately rejected by most Dey Krahorm families, who dismissed their former "representatives" and filed a civil complaint against them for breach of trust, along with a separate complaint to cancel the contract.
Law on their side
Article 66 of the 2001 Land Law states:
"A person with Khmer nationality and with capacity to enter into a contract may sell or purchase immovable property." Yet, the following persons may not sell: "A person who is not the owner of the property offered for sale."
The so-called former representatives had no legal capacity to sell the villagers' land. 7NG's agreement is, therefore, null and void under the law.
An unbiased investigation into the facts will reveal that the Dey Krahorm families have legal rights that have been consistently denied by the competent authorities. The families are under no legal obligation to accept the company's compensation offer. They have every right to reject it and remain on their land and in their homes. This is not a case of expropriation of land for public interest purposes. It is a case of a private company using armed force to acquire other people's private property for their personal profit. Company representatives are on record stating that they do not even know how they intend to develop the site. Therefore, if they want this land, they need to offer the residents a price that they are willing to accept.
However, instead of offering a mutually agreed price for the land, the company and the authorities forcibly removed the families and demolished their homes and property. This action was illegal. Article 253 of the Land Law states:
"Any person who uses violence against a possessor in good faith of an immovable property, whether or not his title has been established or it is disputed, shall be fined from 1,500,000 riels to 25,000,000 riels and/or imprisoned from six (6) months to two (2) years irrespective of the penalty for violence against a person. In addition to the above penalty, the violator shall be liable for civil damages that were caused by his violent acts. If the violence was ordered by a person other than the perpetrator, who did not personally participate in the commission of such violence, he shall be subject to the same penalties as the perpetrators of the violence."
The company also employed hundreds of private contractors to help carry out the home demolitions, and they are caught on film using weapons and tear gas against the villagers, many of whom sustained injuries as a result. This was also illegal. Article 254 of the Land Law states:
"Under no circumstances shall the use of private force be authorised in order to protect a person's title to property or to enforce a court order for the expulsion or forced removal of an occupant. Any person who uses private force for the above purposes shall be fined from three million (3,000,000) riels to twenty five million (25,000,000) riels and/or imprisoned from (6) six months to two (2) years."
Nothing for evictees
The displaced residents of Dey Krahorm are now homeless, traumatised and reliant on the good will of humanitarian organisations to meet their basic needs. The Government of Cambodia is solely responsible, under the international law obligations to which it is bound, for addressing the humanitarian situation that it has created. The government is also legally responsible to ensure that the land and property that was taken or destroyed is restored to its lawful possessors, or that they receive just and fair compensation for their losses. Any failure to do so should result in condemnation and sanctions by the UN and Cambodia's donor community.
The forced eviction of Dey Krahorm is unique only in that it occurred in the heart of the capital city and that it has, therefore, attracted a great deal of media attention. However, there are hundreds of communities across the country whose land is being stolen with impunity by powerful elites. This epidemic of land theft in the absence of the rule of law flies in the face of poverty-reduction efforts promoted by the government and its benefactors. It is high time that international donors - who have poured billions of dollars into development assistance in Cambodia - acknowledge that if the government continues to refuse to enforce the law and end land-grabbing, no sustainable progress can be made toward poverty alleviation, and taxpayers' money is being squandered.
Director, Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia
The views expressed in this letter are entirely personal.