A young Group 78 resident peers over a placade bearing photocopied images of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife Bun Rany at an eviction protest on July 18.
he narrow strip of land measuring just 45 by 200 meters known as Group 78 has become
the latest battleground in the continuing series of forced evictions along Phnom
Penh's Tonle Bassac riverside.
On July 24, the 146 families of Group 78 received their eighth letter from City Hall
informing them that they are living on "State Public Land" and have just
one week to leave their homes, or face removal by force.
Under the 2001 Land Law "State Public Land" is defined as including, for
example, roads, hospitals, schools, and government buildings. The eviction notice
claims that the entire 45 meter wide strip of land, including Group 78's neat line
of wooden houses, is in fact a state road.
Lawyers representing Group 78 say this is simply an attempt on the part of authorities
to avoid paying fair and just compensation to the residents, some of whom have legal
documents proving they have lived on the land since the early 1980s.
"It is not 'state public property'," said Eang Sopheak, Attorney-At-Law
for the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC). "At Group 78 the actual road
is seven meters wide. The rest of the strip is houses. All the roads in Phnom Penh
are the same kind of width; how can they say that these people live on state public
property - a 45-meter-wide road?"
Compensation was not mentioned in the city's eviction notice, a copy of which was
seen by the Post. But residents who agree to leave voluntarily have been promised
a 5-by-12 meter plot of land for each family in a remote paddy field in Trapeang
Krasang beyond Phnom Penh International Airport, and between $500 and $600 depending
on the size and condition of their home.
The Group 78 residents are aware that land in the area near the National Assembly
where they now live is worth at least $600 per square meter. All except 20 families
have rejected the city's offer.
"The government has to respect the law," said Hoeung Sovan, Group 78's
representative. "We are not protesting the government's development policy,
but we ask for our rights to be respected. The constant letters are just attempts
to threaten us to take the compensation."
Group 78's lawyers are arguing that if the land was indeed "State Public Land,"
then the residents should not have been issued documents by local authorities leading
them to believe they were legally residing in the area.
"Some people has been living on their land since 1983," said Sopheak. "If
it is a state road then why did local authorities issue documents to the residents?"
Eng Chhai Eang, a Sam Rainsy Party member of Parliament and vice president of the
newly established National Authority for Resolving Land Disputes (NARLD), agreed
that the government should hold the local authorities who issued these documents
accountable, not just evict the residents.
"The government should punish officials who allowed the people to live on the
land - not punish the people themselves."
Residents fear that once they have been dispatched with compensation packages, the
land will not be developed as a state road, but will be sold off to a private developer.
"When the community had a meeting with the City Hall they didn't show clear
evidence to prove that it is and will be a state road," said Sopheak. "Already
a private company seems to be involved: when people do agree to move, it is Suor
Srun Enterprises (SSE) who provide the compensation land."
The city recognizes SSE as the owner of the land adjacent to Group 78, previously
home to the Sambok Chab community. In May, with the help of several hundred military
police, over 1,000 families were forcibly evicted and removed to various sites all
far outside the city.
The city and SSE were heavily criticised by local and international rights groups
for the disproportionate use of force, lack of community consultation and inadequate
preparation of the relocation sites - which lacked basic infrastructure such as running
water, electricity, and latrines.
But this kind of treatment is consistent with the manner of evictions in Cambodia
now, said Sara Colm, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
"There's little transparency or public participation during the planning stages
of these new developments," she said. "People are often not informed of
their rights or given due process; the judicial system is being abused by people
who use bribery to obtain land titles; compensation often does not cover the cost
of the land and housing that people have lost and resettlement sites are grossly
But Mea Sopheap, commune chief of Tonle Bassac, said the government's seizure of
the land along the Tonle Bassac river bank is an essential part of the city's overall
development plan. Other communities, including the Happy Community, which houses
over 200 families, and the Wat Prayu Vong area, which houses more than 300 families,
are also in line for eviction as part of the government's Master Plan for the city,
"City Hall needs the land that Group 78 live on in order to expand the road
so it is 30 meters wide so that a bridge can be built to Koh Pich," he said.
"They need the land of the Happy Community to build a road from Hun Sen Park
right down to opposite the Ministry of Interior - the entire river bank will be concreted
and a 16-meter-wide road will extend along approximately 1,000 meters of the riverbank."
But residents of all of these communities facing eviction are likely to receive poor
treatment from the government, Colm said.
"The government is not making a genuine effort to address the poverty and livelihood
problems of these squatter communities," she said. "Instead it is working
at the behest of private companies, while attempting to sweep evidence of urban poverty
under the rug."