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Rhetoric vs reality: tough talk little comfort in Andong

Rhetoric vs reality: tough talk little comfort in Andong

rhetoric.jpg
rhetoric.jpg

In a series of speeches over the last year, Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly

warned high-ranking members of his own administration to stop land grabbing. But

experts say institutional paralysis and local-level corruption continue to

condemn thousands of Cambodian citizens to landless lives in limbo.

Storm clouds gather over the Andong relocation site, 22km from Phnom Penh.

"In

all types of cases, from the very large to the very small, land disputes are not

being solved," said Eang Chhai Eang, vice president of the National Land Dispute

Authority (NLDA) and Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) parliamentarian. "The situation has

not improved at all this year. It makes me question whether I should

resign."

Hun Sen has spoken of the dangers of a "farmers revolution" if

land grabbing continues unabated. But few have heeded his warning, said An Sam

Ath, senior human rights monitor at local rights group Licadho.

"Two or

three high-ranking CPP officials have offered their illegally grabbed land

back," he said. "Hundreds of others keep their land and so the disputes

continue."

Hun Sen's "war" on land grabbing is not purely rhetorical,

said one Western diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.

"The Prime

Minister has a clear political instinct for danger to him or his party," said

the diplomat. "He is far more aware than some members of the government that the

land issue could really turn the population against him."

Awareness of

the land issue's volatility has not resulted in effective mechanisms to resolve

disputes, said Chhai Eang. A year after NLDA was established, the National

Assembly has still not passed the necessary laws to give the body the legal

authority it needs to resolve land disputes.

Consequently, NLDA has been

unable to do anything to ease the plight of the Kingdom's many land-dispute

victims, such as the hundreds of families who were forcibly evicted from Phnom

Penh's Sambok Chab area nearly one year ago, said Chhai Eang.

The Phnom

Penh municipality "put pressure on the people" to get them off the land quickly,

said Chhai Eang. The results of the haste are apparent. Most former Sambok Chab

residents are still squatting at the Andong relocation site, 22 km from Phnom

Penh. They are waiting for the plots of land, and basic infrastructure they were

promised a year ago.

The mishandling of the negotiation and relocation

process by local authorities is the biggest problem with evictions in Cambodia,

said Noun Sokchea, attorney for the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC).

"At Sambok Chab, the local authorities should have surveyed the

community better," she said. "They moved too fast, and now this makes problems

for everyone."

But the local authority's priority is not to protect the

quality of life of communities set for eviction, said Chhai Eang,

"They

just sell the land for investment," he said.

At 2 am on June 6, 2006,

former Sambok Chab resident, Dou Vanthy, 36, noticed several hundred military

police had surrounded the area.

"At 6 am they told us to get into

trucks," she said. "We had less than an hour to pack our things. They didn't

tell us where we were going. They didn't tell us anything. They threw us away

like rubbish."

Licadho's Sam Ath said the confusion and disorder that

surrounds many forced evictions is the result of local authorities seeking to

profit from the situation.

"When it is known there will be a relocation,

the number of people in the area grows," he said. "The local authorities are

accepting bribes to allow people into the community so they can try and benefit

from any compensation packages offered."

Vanthy, who has now been living

at Andong for nearly a year, no longer holds much hope of receiving a plot of

land. She said she has watched the population at the relocation site grow as the

opportunists arrive.

"There was a lot of corruption involved in

allocating the plots of land," she said. "The village leaders have many plots of

land, but we have nothing."

As Vanthy waits for her plot of land, living

conditions continue to deteriorate. Recent tests conducted by the Pasteur

Insitute on the drinking water at Andong found it contained human and animal

feces.

"The water is clearly contaminated," said Dr Kruy Sun Lay, a

director at Pasteur.

Sor Sareth, 54, a resident at Andong, said the

water, even when boiled, had given her and her four children stomach problems.

"I am afraid of the water here," she said. "And we still have to pay for

it - 200 riel for a bucket of water which has come from the local pond. But I

can't even earn 100 riel a day here."

Despite Hun Sen's warnings, the

government has done little to prevent the local-level corruption that caused

such major problems in previous evictions, said Phann Sithan, secretariat

officer of the Housing Rights Task Force.

At Boeng Kak, which looks set

to be the next large-scale eviction in Phnom Penh, the local authorities are

subtly permitting new arrivals, said Sithan.

"It costs $450 to buy the

materials for a new house and $60 to purchase a family book saying you live in

the area," said Sithan. "People are moving building material into the area at

night and putting up new homes, hoping they will then be able to receive

compensation when the site is evicted."

As they did at Sambok Chab, local

authorities are preventing NGOs from conducting surveys in the Boeng Kak area

that could be critical to ensuring fair and just compensation for the genuine

residents affected by the planned development, said David Pred, country director

of Bridges Across Borders (BAB).

"It is very important to gather reliable

information about the affected population as a pre-requisite for ensuring that

the [relocation] project moves forward in a legal manner, free from conflict,

and respectful of human rights," he said.

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