In Cambodia, Land Seizures Push Thousands of the Poor Into Homelessness
ANDONG, Cambodia — When the monsoon rain pours through Mao Sein’s torn thatch roof, she pulls a straw sleeping mat over herself and her three small children and waits until it stops.
She and her children sit on a low table as floodwater rises, bringing with it the sewage that runs along the mud paths outside their shack.
Ms. Mao Sein, 34, was resettled by the government here in an empty field two years ago, when the police raided the squatters’ colony where she lived in Phnom Penh, the capital, 12 miles away.
She is a widow and a scavenger. The area where she lives has no clean water or electricity, no paved roads or permanent buildings. But there is land to live on, and that has drawn scores of new homeless families to settle here, squatting among the squatters.
With its shacks and its sewage, Andong looks very much like the refugee camps that were home to those who were forced from their homes by the brutal Communist Khmer Rouge three decades ago.
Like tens of thousands of people around the country, those living here are victims of what experts say has become the most serious human rights abuse in the country: land seizures that lead to evictions and homelessness.
“Expropriation of the land of Cambodia’s poor is reaching a disastrous level,” Basil Fernando, executive director of the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong, a private monitoring group, said in December. “The courts are politicized and corrupt, and impunity for human rights violators remains the norm.”
With the economy on the rise, land is being seized for logging, agriculture, mining, tourism and fisheries, and in Phnom Penh, soaring land prices have touched off what one official called a frenzy of land grabs by the rich and powerful. The seizures can be violent, including late-night raids by the police and military. Sometimes, shanty neighborhoods burn down, apparently victims of arson.
“They came at 2 a.m.,” said Ku Srey, 37, who was evicted with Ms. Mao Sein and most of their neighbors in June 2006.
“They were vicious,” Ms. Ku Srey said of the police and soldiers who evicted her.
“They had electric batons” — and she imitated the sound made by the devices: “chk-chk-chk-chk.” She said, “They pushed us into trucks, they threw all our stuff into trucks and they brought us here.”
In a report in February, Amnesty International estimated that 150,000 people around the country were now at risk of forcible eviction as a result of land disputes, land seizures and new development projects.
These include 4,000 families who live around a lake in the center of Phnom Penh, Boeung Kak Lake, which is the city’s main catchment for monsoon rains and is being filled in for upscale development.
“If these communities are forced to move, it would be the most large-scale displacement of Cambodians since the times of the Khmer Rouge,” said Brittis Edman, a researcher with Amnesty International, which is based in London.
That, in a way, would bring history full circle.
Like other ailments of society — political and social violence, poverty and a culture of impunity for those with power — the land issues have roots in Cambodia’s tormented past of slaughter, civil war and social disruptions.
The brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge, during which 1.7 million people are estimated to have died, began in 1975 with an evacuation of Phnom Penh, forcing millions of people into the countryside and emptying the city. It ended in 1979 when the Khmer Rouge was driven from power by a Vietnamese invasion, sending hundreds of thousands of refugees into Thailand.
Many of the refugees returned in the 1990s, joining a rootless population displaced by the Khmer Rouge and the decade of civil war that followed in the 1980s. Many ended their journeys in Phnom Penh, creating huge colonies of squatters.
Now, many of these people are being forced to move again, from Phnom Penh and from around the country, victims of the latest scourge of the poor: national prosperity.
Whichever way the winds of history blow, some people here say, life only gets worse for the poor. If it is not “pakdivat,” revolution, that is buffeting the poor, they say, it is “akdivat,” development.
The Cambodian economy has at last started to grow, at an estimated 9 percent last year. And Phnom Penh is starting to transform itself with modern buildings, modest malls and plans for skyscrapers. It is one of the last Asian capitals to begin to pave over its past.
From 1993 to 1999, Amnesty International said in its report in February, the government granted commercial development rights for about one-third of the country’s most productive land for commercial development to private companies.
In Phnom Penh from 1998 through 2003, the city government forced 11,000 families from their homes, the World Bank said in a statement quoted by Amnesty International.
Since then, the human rights group said, evictions have reportedly displaced at least 30,000 more families.
“One thing that is important to note is that the government is not only failing to protect the population, but we are also seeing that it is complicit in many of the forced evictions,” Ms. Edman, of Amnesty International, said.
The government responded to the group’s report through a statement issued by its embassy in London.
“Just to point out that Cambodia is not Zimbabwe,” the statement read. “Your researcher should also spend more time to examine cases of land and housing rights violations in this country, if she dares.”
Here in Andong, the people have adapted as best they can.
Little by little, they have made their dwellings home, some of them decorating their shacks with small flower pots. A few have gathered enough money to buy concrete and bricks to pave their floors and reinforce their walls.
But this home, like the ones they have known in the past, may only be temporary. The outskirts of Phnom Penh are only a few miles away. As the city continues to expand, aid workers say, the people here will probably be forced to move again.