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Cambodians' rage mounts over evictions
Publication Date : 25-02-2013
Ngorn Vanna finds it hard to smile at the gleaming new buildings soaring on the horizon.
A mother of four little children, with the youngest on her hip, she is not impressed by the palatial government buildings where Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Council of Ministers have their offices.
Her own home is a wood-and-tin shack now partially buried in Mekong River sand piped in to fill up Boeung Kak Lake - prime real estate in the capital, to make way for a brand-new city of offices, condos, hotels and parks, far out of the financial reach of the families who had been living round the lake since the early 1990s.
According to local rights groups, since 2003 more than 400,000 Cambodians have been evicted from their land. There have been two types of evictions - from the capital, to make way for development; and from the countryside, to make way for commercial plantations and industries, invariably by well-connected business interests.
But the rising voices of civil society have also forced Cambodia's notoriously brusque strongman Hun Sen to address land issues ahead of a general election in July.
In May last year, a moratorium was announced on new concessions. A month later, Hun Sen put one of his sons Hun Maneth - who is likely to run for Parliament in the election - in charge of dealing with land disputes at a government agency called the National General Secretariat for Land Disputes.
Hun Sen has in recent months been sending students out to rural areas - paying them wages out of his own pocket at times - to demarcate areas in dispute. He has followed this up by giving out land titles.
More than 8,000ha is also being retrieved from economic and forest land concessions owned by some of the country's biggest tycoons, and awarded to villagers.
Many of those evicted from Phnom Penh live in the countryside, often in mere shacks. To work, some have to commute back to Phnom Penh during the week by bus and sleep on the city's sidewalks at night.
But fewer people are taking this lying down. About two weeks ago, more than 60 families living in Preah Vihear province filed a complaint after learning that their land was going to be appropriated for a new airport.
Boeung Kak Lake was a trigger point. When the pipes started discharging the sludgy sand in August 2011, Ngorn was asleep in her shack. Local residents - many of them women - surrounded it to save it from the sand.
It was part of an ongoing protest against big business - in this case Shukaku Inc, owned by Lao Meng Khin, a ruling party senator, and Chinese company Erdos Hongjun Investment Corporation.
The protests landed 15 members of the community in jail for just over a month. Among them was a 73-year-old woman, while the youngest was a 13-year-old girl.
There are still no land titles for the Boeung Kak community. Today, the families cling precariously to the fringes of the filled-in lake. Those who work, do so only as construction labourers or scrap collectors.
Young men sit around playing cards, and crime is rife. A wrinkled grey banner still proclaims their defiance, saying: "44ha of land belongs to the remaining residents of Boeung Kak Lake, there is no piece of land that belongs to Shukaku Inc."
Giving out titles will not solve the issue overnight, rights groups say. Just last week, rights group the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association released a report detailing how the government approved at least 66 concessions last year covering a total 381,121ha, with most of the deals done despite the moratorium announced in May.
Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party has 90 seats in the legislative assembly, with the opposition at 29 - one short of the number required to launch a censure motion against the Premier. Analysts say Asean's longest-serving elected leader does not want to lose ground and expose himself to a censure motion in Parliament. Essentially, he wants the party to be invincible.
"Hun Sen is concerned about making sure that the poor people who were embroiled in land disputes get a fair hearing," said Professor Harish Mehta, of Canada's McMaster University, who has co-written a biography of the Premier.
The eviction issue is rooted in the fact that most Cambodians still do not have titles to the land they live on.
The Khmer Rouge, which was in power from 1975 to 1979, abolished land titles. And the gap between the wealthy and powerful and those left behind like Ngorn, wandering the sandy waste where there once was a lake, is increasing.
"In Cambodia, the 80 per cent who are poor, own 20 per cent of the land," said Sia Phearum of the Housing Rights Task Force, a non-governmental organisation that works with a coalition of civil society groups to advise locals on how to fight powerful business-political interests.
"The 20 per cent who are rich, control 80 per cent of the land."