Land Is Life

January 25, 2012

Borei Keila Evictions Highlights Economic Hiera rchy Among Poor in Cambodia

Michelle Tolson

by Michelle Tolson

Borei Keila demolition site, Cambodia. Photograph courtesy of the author.
On January 12th, 2012 I traveled 45 km outside of Phnom Penh with a group of human rights workers and journalists to a relocation site for the evictees of the Borei Keila slum, which had been demolished the prior week. Deeply tanned faces lined with anguish peered out of makeshift shelters. Grief was the dominant theme as they shared stories of the eviction proceedings. Up on a hill, the beautiful temples of Udong contra sted with the temporary homes below fashioned from tarps and blankets, propped up by sticks.

Forced evictions, like Borei Keila, are termed ‘land-grabs’ by local human rights organizations such as LICADHO, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights. They have become a common occurrence as Cambodia develops. In Cambodia land ownership is recognized informally through a village or community leader. The World Bank estimates that 80 percent of Cambodias land is state owned.

In 2001, the World Bank began documenting and formalizing existing ownership of land. The process was meant to facilitate development, allowing families to officially register their assets and better plan for the future. The initiative, however, had been seen by displaced communities as contributing to the loss of their land. The World Bank then sponsored an independent report, Cambodia: Land Management and Administration Project. It found that The World Bank was inadvertently guilty of contributing to the very process it was seeking to avoid by not paying more attention to areas where conflict of land titles were likely, such as timber-rich forests and Phnom Penh.

The process was complicated by history. The Khmer Rouge moved an entire population out of Phnom Penh and into the countryside on a forced labor campaign in the mid-seventies. Those that survived the genocide returned to find that someone else had moved onto their property. As all documents had been destroyed, informal settlements became the norm in the absence of another verifiable means of proving ownership.

In 2011 the forced eviction of approximately 20,000 people at Boeung Kak Lake, an area deemed to have high real estate value, brought land grabs to international attention. According to the independent report Boeung Kak Lake was classified as State Public land by the government, which means it cannot not be privately owned. Without consulting the inhabitants, the land was leased to a private developer. When the classification system was questioned, the land was quickly reclassified as State Private, which can be leased for development.

Residents in relocation site for the evictees of Borei Keila, Cambodia. Photograph courtesy of the author.
The independent report contends that The World Bank should have facilitated the informal settlers in gaining land titles as they were sitting on a negotiable asset. To remedy the situation, compensation was offered to the settlers, though far below the real estates assessed value. Reporting that intimidation was used, many reluctantly took the compensation and accepted relocation several kilometers outside the city. Residents who refused were forced out violently, with compensation withdrawn and protestors imprisoned. Human rights organizations sought international intervention, which resulted in The World Bank putting pressure on the Cambodian government by withholding funding until compensation was offered to everyone.

The Borei Keila eviction case, now in the spotlight, highlights the sad story of the economic hierarchy within Cambodia those with enough money to buy off large companies and community leaders and those with out money who become homeless in the eviction process.

On the early morning of January 3rd, 2012, demolition crews began destroying homes. Some residents could retrieve their belongings; others were still inside and forced to climb out of the rubble. When the private development company Phan Imex had leased the land in 2003, they had promised to build 10 replacement buildings for displaced residents. In April of 2010, after completing eight buildings, they reportedly asked to be released from their contractual obligations to build the other two, citing the project to be more expensive than anticipated. This resulted in the displacement of the remaining 300 families.

Parliament member and human rights activist Mu Sochua was present, reporting live via her Facebook page. Her posts suggest a sense of solidarity with the residents rather than a call to physically attack the police as has been suggested by the government. Eventually all residents had to leave. Their belongings were destroyed and they had no where to go. Phan Imex offered the 300 families relocation to an area of undeveloped land 45 km outside the city.

Protesters at the US embassy in Cambodia. Photograph courtesy of the author.
The official statement from the municipality of Phnom Penh failed to acknowledge the informal system of land titles. They claimthose denied new housing were illegally squatting and accused the protestors of attacking without provocation.

On January 5, a group of displaced Borei Keila residents went to the US Embassy to plead for international intervention. Local blogger Faine Greenwood captured the moving call to action. Boeung Kak Lake evictees also arrived on the scene, gave a rousing speech, and encouraged the Borei Keila group to not give up. This grass roots organizing was led by women and delivered to a group of mostly women and children. The US embassy declined to meet with the evictees.

After observing the embassy action, another reporter and I went to the Borei Keila site. We found the area fenced off with police and armed guards waving us away as we approached. Former residents were not allowed onsite and families camping at the area were forced out. One week later the despair at the relocation site was obvious. Forty-five kilometers from schools the children attended and jobs the parents held, the site was without water, shops, or supplies.

Mu Sochua called the evictees together to share their stories. A woman tearfully recounted how her land title documents were destroyed when the Phan Imex demolished her building and now she cannot prove that she was a Borei Keila resident. As the community leader will not recognize her, she is considered to be illegally squatting at the relocation site.

The relocation site with parliament member Mu Sochua, reporters, evictees, and human rights groups. Photograph courtesy of the author.
Another man also explained how the community leader would not recognize him. With great emotion, he say s that he lived next to the community leader for 13 years, yet he pretends he does not know him. He too is denied his small piece of land in this area, and is now considered to be camping illegally. He used to drive a motorcycle taxi for work but cannot do that from this location.

A woman says how she was promised an apartment on the 6th floor of the new building. She says that those who were allowed to move to the new building gave Phan Imex money, but she had no money to give. At this new location the well water is dirty, there is no food, and she has three children to care for.

About 100 families have made it to the relocation site but only half have officially been given land to build, financial compensation, and some food to eat. This group resides on one end of the relocation site and is in the process of building small wooden houses lined with tin. On the other end is the group not recognized by Phan Imex. Apparently the families given the land have given the community leader money. Our translator relays the theme.

If you have no money, you have no land. We have no money because we are poor.

Mu Sochua urges the two groups to work together. We have two groups here; one with land, and one without land. You have to work together because you both lost your homes. You have that in common.

As we walk from the tents and tarps to the area where the families are rebuilding no one comes out to talk. Mu Sochua, appearing frustrated, approaches reporters and human rights groups, Its a classic case of divide and conquer. Yet they do not see it.

The pattern seems to be if one has money to give to a large company evicting you from your home or to the community leader who vouches for your identity, one has connections and a voice. Those without money to spare, find themselves displ aced to homelessness and blamed for it. While NGOs are the greatest ally and hope for this group, the new NGO draft law imperils civil societys ability to criticize government and survive.

Ten civil society organizations in Cambodia issued a statement condemning the lack of accountability on the part of Phan Imax and the government. Amnesty International has created a petition to draw international attention to protesting evictees.

On January 18, in the Kratie province, four unarmed villagers were shot by a private security firm as another forced eviction was underway. Villagers blocked a main road into the area, demandin g accountability from the government. Prime Minister Hun Sen condemned the shootings and agreed to return the land. Later the Secretary of State of the Ministry of Environment clarified that only villagers that could prove their land had been taken away illegally would be entitled to the land – a statement that has become all too familiar.


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