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Group 78 evicted

Group 78 evicted

AT dawn on Friday, police in riot gear, military officers and truckloads of demolition workers entered Group 78, an inner-city Phnom Penh community that once held more than 80 families. Despite eviction threats, four families remained in their homes, hoping for better a deal.

Upon entering the community, the scores of red-shirted workers started tearing down the community's homes, and by midday the community had been razed, marking the end of the inner-city community that residents say is over 25 years old.

"They came and evicted us today without violence, because they already threatened us with their words," resident Hem Many, 29, said. "It shows that this country does not respect law; they respect the power."

Though there was no physical violence during the eviction, residents say the government's previous verbal threats combined with Friday's show of armed force intimidated the residents into leaving their homes and prevented fair, last-minute negotiations from taking place.

Resident Suong Sarin said that no one in the community wanted to accept any of the government compensation packages, but that people felt they had no choice.

"Nobody here volunteered to get compensation, but we had to agree with the government. Accepting the government money is better than if they demolish our houses and we have empty hands," he said.

In the morning, the six families who had previously refused to accept government compensation met with Mann Chhoeun, the Phnom Penh deputy governor, and discussed compensation packages. While their community was being dismantled, the families agreed to accept government money, though one family told the Post the government tricked them into leaving their home.

Three families, according to Group 78 representative Kheng Soroth, will receive US$20,000, while two families agreed to accept $9,000.

But Kheng Soroth said he will refuse the $8,000 being offered to him, because Mann Chhoeun reneged on his agreement. Kheng Soroth said the Deputy Governor promised his family $20,000, but after their homes were demolished, he was told he would get only $8,000.

Mann Chhoeun, however, claimed all Group 78 residents had agreed to let the government tear their houses down.

"Today, we evicted people without violence, because all the residents agree to have their houses torn down," he said, adding that City Hall will give families clothes, books and food as gifts.

But Mann Chhoeun's promises of presents did not placate all Group 78 residents.

Hem Many said that if she could, she would get back at Municipal officials responsible for the destruction of her home.

"In the future, if I become rich or a high-ranking officer, I will demolish the former high-ranking officers' houses so they will know how it feels when they meet that situation."

During Friday's eviction, six embassies and five international organisations including the United Nations and the World Bank released a joint statement calling for a moratorium on land evictions until a better mechanism for resolving land dispute is put in place.

The statement does not mention Group 78 specifically nor does it call any of Phnom Penh's previous the land evictions illegal, but it says Cambodia's policies and practices "do not make effective use of the procedures and institutions allowed for in Cambodian law."

The group's choice to release the statement right as the community's houses were being knocked down and its refusal to condemn the Cambodian government in harsher terms came under criticism from civil society groups.

Dan Nicholson, a coordinator at Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), said that the statement was "completely irrelevant" for Group 78, and David Pred, the director of Bridges Across Borders, said that though it is significant that major donors "have publicly acknowledged that the current systems of dispute resolution ... are not fair and transparent ... their words will ring hollow ... unless they are backed up by real consequences."

A coordinator for the Community Legal Education Centre, Man Vuthy, said that the evictions were clearly in violation of Cambodian law.

Many of the families should have received land titles since they have been living on the land for five years prior to the 2001 Land Law, and that they should receive "fair and just compensation in advance" if the government can prove their evictions are for the public interest.

"The government should pay before they smash their houses," he said as the Group78 homes were being demolished around him.

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