There were 26 forced evictions involving some 5,585 families in Phnom Penh during 2007, according to rights group Adhoc.
Development often entails upheaval as traditional lifestyles make way for the modern. In no area is this more evident or likely to draw as much controversy as in the rush to claim prime pieces of land that has accompanied the nation’s roaring economic growth.
High-rises are replacing shanty towns in urban areas, coastal developments are sidelining beachfront vendors and large-scale agricultural projects are encroaching on land farmed by villagers for generations.
Few argue against the need for economic development but there is a growing number of increasingly vocal communities – and NGOs that represent them – who insist that the rush to expand private enterprise is running roughshod over the rights of the poor who happen to live on commercially valuable land.
Of particular concern to many NGOs is the implementation of urban development projects. Slums are leveled and residing populations evicted – frequently in that order – leaving families stranded on the outskirts of town with few amenities.
Am Sam Ath, senior monitor for local NGO Licadho, said that in more cases than not, the only thing awaiting those displaced by new projects is suffering. Glittering towers, shopping malls and apartment blocks give little back to those who were moved from slums to make room for the projects.
“I don’t think these kinds of evictions will benefit poor people, and the government itself benefits only slightly,” said Sam Ath. “It is not real development. The result of the evictions is more suffering for poor people.”
According to a recent report by rights group Adhoc, in 2007 there were 26 forced evictions involving some 5,585 families in Phnom Penh. Two people died and many were injured during the evictions, according to Adhoc.
An annual report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, released on February 11, stated that “the forced evictions of poor communities has occurred largely in and around Phnom Penh as demand and prices for land increase, but there are a rising number of evictions in Sihanoukville and other provinces experiencing urban growth.”
The report said several evictions “were carried out with excessive force, using armed police and military police, resulting in injuries and the destruction of property.”
“Many evicted families have been rendered homeless or relocated to distant sites on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, which lack basic services and are far removed from their usual livelihoods,” it added.
Sam Ath predicted the next mass evictions to take place in Phnom Penh would likely be of 4,500 families at Boeng Kok. Also in line to lose their homes, he said, are 102 families in Group 78, who have been told to make way for a Suor Srun Enterprises project; families at Dey Krahorm, which will be the site of a 7NG project; and 200 families living on four hectares at Happy Community in Tonle Bassac commune, which will be taken by Canadia Bank.
District authorities have told residents they must leave these areas, he added.
Lim Sambo, a villager living in Group 78, a highly prized patch of land near the National Assembly, said he was concerned the authorities would sell the land he lived on to a private developer.
“It’s not clear that the government will take the land for development itself because the land nearby is privately owned,” Sambo said, adding, “I’m sure that the land will be given to the private sector.”
Sung Bonna, director of Bonna Realty Group, said people living in slums do not have the resources to develop the land themselves. The government also lacks the investment funds itself and so turns to private firms, which are usually required to construct new homes for those who have been evicted, he said.
“In other countries the government undertakes developments for its people, but our government doesn’t have money to build houses for poor people (at a new location) so it needs private companies to do that,” Bonna said.
“But I see the government now wants to develop (homes for the poor) onsite rather than evict them to the outskirts like before. I see a lot of buildings built in Phnom Penh illegally,” he said, referring to buildings that creep beyond their allotted boundaries, in terms of either height or ground space.
Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Mann Chhoeun said there were 569 slum communities in the city which were home to more than 30,000 families. So far, the populations of 41 slums have been relocated and negotiations are underway for the removal of others.
“Negotiation is better than conflict,” Chhoeun said. “We allow private companies to invest in the development of the areas, but it must be in the public interest.”
Chhoeun told the Post there are three options for removing slum communities from the city: upgrading their housing, moving inhabitants to a new site, or paying compensation to the displaced.
“We cannot give everybody everything they want,” he said. “Little by little they will understand and agree to leave.”