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PHNOM PENH, Apr 3 2008 (IPS) - Sitting in a wooden house in the urban poor community of Dei Krohome, Touch Ratha recounted a tale of intimidation, secrecy and the blurred line between police, government officials and the private company that she says has been trying to evict her and her neighbours.
Many families have already left Dei Krohome, ‘Red Earth’ in the Khmer language. They have accepted the company’s offer of relocation to alternative land on the outskirts of Phnom Penh and avoid the campaign of harassment that Ratha says the company is undertaking.
"I said no to them because it is too far," she said of the relocation. "I want to live here near schools, electricity, fresh water and business opportunities. If I have to leave here I will fall into poverty."
New offices and apartment stores overlook Dei Krohome, which is situated on prime riverside real estate in Phnom Penh.
It also abuts a block of flats designed by renowned Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann in the 1960s, but now in serious need of refurbishment. Lines of washing hang from the apartments and the scorch marks of a past fire still scar the buildings.
While reports of land grabbing date back to the 1980s, the current spike in forced evictions is unprecedented, the result of a real estate boom and an explosion in property speculation.
Many local and foreign observers believe the boom, which commenced in 2002, was partly kick-started with money repatriated by various Khmer business interests keen to escape increased scrutiny by international banks post the 9/11 attacks.
"Now it has taken a life of its own," said one foreign observer. "There is a lot of Asian money here as well as a lot of investment both domestic and international."
"We are even starting to see high risk high return investment now coming into Cambodia post the sub-prime crisis in the United States. You can now measure increases in land prices in Phnom Penh and other major urban centres on monthly basis,’’ he added.
In February, Amnesty International (AI) released a report estimating that approximately 150,000 Cambodians currently face the threat of eviction from their homes – "a modest estimate" according to Brittis Edman, a London-based AI researcher.
Although the report focused on rural areas where people are being evicted to make way for large-scale tourism and agricultural developments, it clearly states the problem is also happening in urban areas.
"It is not government policy because it is not written down anywhere, but it is becoming the practice of developers that if they want a piece of land and they are prepared to disregard the rules and procedures laid down they can do it," said Edman. "This was not the case in the nineties."
The report also highlighted cases in which human rights defenders and land rights activists have been intimidated and arrested by the very people who are supposed to protect them: police and members of the armed forces.
"The Cambodian authorities are failing to protect – in law and practice – the population against forced evictions," it stated. "Government representatives are often actively involved in or fail to act when laws are applied selectively or by-passed altogether."
Echoing concerns expressed by local housing rights activists, AI said there is a marked increase in using the court system to silence activists.
There were over a hundred cases in 2007 of activists being accused, charged and sometimes convicted of incursion on private property.
"The element of collusion between state parties who claim land and authorities undermines any kind of protection that affected communities may have," said Edman.
"I consider the work we do to be dangerous,’’ Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Centre, which represents local people in several high profile land cases, told IPS. ''Our people have been threatened and intimidated. NGOs (non government organisations) have been accused of inciting people to use the legal process, which frankly I would think is funny, if it were not so serious.''
The Cambodian government denies forced evictions occur.
At a recent donor meeting, Chhann Saphan, secretary of the ministry of land management, said that persons evicted from land in Phnom Penh had been occupying it illegally.
Many Dei Krohome residents have been in the community since the 1980s. The government originally promised them ‘a social inclusion concession’ under which a private company would get part of their land for commercial development in return for building new housing for the community.
Instead, the deal was changed and the residents told to give up all of Dei Krohome to a private company, the 7NG Group, and accept new apartments 20 km away on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
The residents claim they were never asked nor did they agree to alternative housing away from their community, and that a handful of community representatives signed a contract without their knowledge or consent.
Dei Krohome now resembles a battlefield. The houses of those who remain are interspersed with empty spaces where the homes of those who have chosen to leave once stood.
While many residents are nervous about talking to the media, Ratha is happy to discuss the lack of information provided by 7NG Group and their efforts to intimidate the remaining families. She said this includes hiring hooligans to make trouble and provoke residents, and bringing in bulldozers to knock down buildings.
Housing rights NGOs say the company is also resorting to legal action against a number of the residents, accusing them of various crimes.
A 7NG Group site office and showroom is situated around the corner from Dei Krohome. Security guards sit outside the office. A company representative said that no one was available who could comment on the community’s claims.
Given the determination of the community to stay, 7NG Group recently changed tactics and offered to buy them out for 5,000 – 7,000 US dollars each.
"The residents believe this is nowhere near enough given that land prices are currently running at between 5,000 and 6,000 dollars per sq metre,'' said the Housing Rights Task Force’s Rachana.
Cambodia’s land laws have gone through radically different regimes, and not kept pace with decades of war and dislocation resulting in massive movements of people.
While many Cambodians live on land, the ownership of which is clearly defined, many others do not have clear title. It is these grey areas that are the target of the current spate of land grabbing.
A new land law that was introduced in 2001 was hailed as a step forward, but it is yet to be fully implemented. Specifically, the most progressive aspects require the issuing of sub-decrees that are yet to be passed. Other aspects of the law, such as strict limits on the granting of land concessions above 10,000 hectares, have been ignored.
The upshot is that land ownership in Cambodia, already unequal, is getting worse. A recent World Bank report put the figure of landless rural poor at over half a million and growing in 2007.
The situation is so serious that many say it could result in wider unrest. "Failure to open honest dialogue with the people, and to find fair solutions for them which respect the law and their land rights, will only worsen the situation and leader to broader civil unrest," said Naly Pilorge, director of the local human rights NGO ‘LICADHO’.
Recently LICADHO joined several NGOs to call for a moratorium on involuntary evictions until the implementation of a strict legislative framework for resettlement rights.
Even Prime Minister Hun Sen appears to be taking notice. He has personally intervened in one dispute and threatened to dissolve the National Authority for the Resolution of Land Disputes, seen by many as a lame duck, for its lack of activity.
Observers expect to see more action from the Prime Minister in the lead-up to national elections in July, but few believe there will be fundamental changes.
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