Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Watch Video: Cambodia For Sale

Video Journalist David O'Shea reports from Cambodia, where locals are now faced with a new peril - rampant land developers literally smashing entire communities, leaving thousands homeless.


These days, for better or worse, we don't hear all that much about that once basket-case nation even though, as we speak, a leading henchmen of the notorious Pol Pot is on trial in Phnom Phen finally charged with crimes against humanity. As if surviving the Killing Fields wasn't enough, hapless Cambodians are now faced with a new peril - rampant land developers literally smashing entire communities, leaving thousands homeless. And David O'Shea reports that all this is going on with a proverbial wink and a nod from Cambodia's powerful political elites.

REPORTER: David O'Shea

This is a story about power in Cambodia - those who have it and those who don't. It's also about the power of money and what some would call 'progress' in this impoverished land. Right across the country, the poor and powerless are being shoved aside in the rush for so-called development, and it's happening with the complicity of Cambodia's leaders.

The story begins here in Boeung Kak Lake in the heart of the capital, Phnom Penh. Two years ago, a little-known developer signed a 99-year lease with the council for this 133-hectare site. And they're filling 90% of the lake with sand to build a high-rise. The problem for people living around the edge of the lake is, as the sand goes in the water level rises and their houses go under. Since the beginning, there's been a total lack of transparency about the deal. Opposition parliamentarian Sam Rainsy is quite literally wading into the debate.

SAM RAINSY, OPPOSITION PARLIAMENTARIAN: We are here to support the people and to protest against these so-called development projects that cause so many problems for the people living here.

REPORTER: This is a ridiculous situation.

SAM RAINSY: Ridiculous. They don't take into account the environment. They ignore, or they pretend to ignore, that when they fill in lakes, this is going to cause floods. But they don't care - they want to make profits.

REPORTER: Who is this 'they' you're talking about?

SAM RAINSY: They're unscrupulous businessmen who have the support of corrupt political leaders.

People here tell Rainsy they have seen nothing like it in 30 years.

SAM RAINSY: They say this is directly related to the nearby lakes being filled in.

REPORTER: It's not that you've had more rain this year than usual?

SAM RAINSY: No, it is not due to rain.

REPORTER: So it's a pretty miserable existence here at the moment?

SAM RAINSY: Yes, everybody is complaining. Behind their gentle smile you can perceive the anger.

DAN NICHOLSON, CENTRE OF HOUSING RIGHTS AND EVICTIONS: This is the biggest forced relocation of people since Khmer Rouge times - over 4,000 families - and it's happening without proper information, without proper consultation.

Dan Nicholson is with the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, headquartered in Geneva. They're campaigning for the 4,000 families set to be evicted from villages around the lake. Families who have lived here for years, including many who settled here immediately after the horrors of the Khmer Rouge period.

DAN NICHOLSON: The whole contract under which it's being done is blatantly illegal but even though we've gone to court, we can't stop it. There's a total lack of involvement of the community and for the benefit for the community. Instead, the urban poor are just being shunted out of town while the elite take over with another badly thought out development.

The community's legal challenge was dismissed by the court on a technicality. And for those residents resisting threats and intimidation to leave, the flooding is making daily life extremely difficult. Nicholson believes the company, Shukaku, may be using it as a strategy to force them out.

DAN NICHOLSON: They've been pumping sand into the lake for the last couple of months, and so when the rains came, all this flooding is much worse than usual at this stage - kind of a way to force the community out, I guess - those who're staying.

REPORTER: You think? So, that could be it?

DAN NICHOLSON: Yeah, well, they've been told either to go now or your houses will be flooded, so...

This enormous development will completely transform this part of Phnom Penh, but finding out anything at all about the company behind it is almost impossible. Shukaku has no office, and they're not even in the phone book. What we do know is that the company director is senator Lao Meng Khin, a close ally of Prime Minister Hun Sen. The senator is also director of Pheapimex, one of the most powerful conglomerates in the country. According to this report released a fortnight ago by the London-based NGO Global Witness, the senator made his millions in logging.

‘NGO GLOBAL WITNESS’: “ In a forest industry dominated by illegal logging and conflict with local people, Pheapmex held the dubious distinction of being notorious amongst the concessionaires for its ruthlessness and the level of destruction inflicted on its concession areas.”

On the other side of Phnom Penh is the community of Dey Krahorm. It's a market area in a great location, and like the residents around the lake, people have lived here legally for decades. Land titles here are still a mess following the upheaval of the Khmer Rouge years, but under a 2001 law, if people can prove that they've occupied land for more than five years, they have possession rights. What's more, Prime Minister Hun Sen specifically earmarked this area as a social concession, to be developed in conjunction with the existing residents. But that promise was broken, and it's clear the government is now supporting the developer. Negotiations for adequate compensation have just hit a wall. And community leader Chan Vichet knows that this is the beginning of the end. Vichet is on the way to City Hall to see if he can salvage the stalled negotiations.

CHAN VICHET, COMMUNITY LEADER (Translation): Here in Cambodia they don’t respect the poor. If there are legal proceedings, we always lose. In court even if you are right you will lose against the rich. We live here legally, but the Council considers us to be illegal residents. They say we are anarchists.

With no-one to stop them, Vichet and the other delegates march straight into the Deputy Governor's office.

CHAN VICHET (Translation): I’m bringing this proposal to you because the people are very worried.

WOMAN (Translation): Please make it short, it affects my business. Do whatever is possible.

DEPUTY GOVERNOR (Translation): Okay, let’s go outside, yes I will do something. Let’s go.

WOMAN (Translation): Thank you very much.

The Deputy Governor says the company's offer stands - $US20,000 per family or a house outside the city at the relocation site. The residents complain that $20,000 is a fraction of the land value for prime real estate in the centre of the city and the relocation site offers inadequate housing too far from their livelihoods.

DEPUTY GOVERNOR (Translation): Vichet, you have to change son. You have to change your attitude. We are not at war, we are educated people. That’s all I can do, the company has offered you $20,000.

WOMAN (Translation): That won’t buy a home.

DEPUTY GOVERNOR (Translation): It’s your decision. We won’t talk further because you don’t act decently. You respond by making faces at me. Very rude! You are very rude. You must excuse me, I regret making time to talk to you.

REPORTER: Mr Deputy Governor, can you guarantee that these people will be safe or are they going to suffer some kind of attack in the next few days?

DEPUTY GOVERNOR (Translation): Have you seen anyone get hurt? Did anyone get even a slap?

CROWD (Translation): No, no, no.

DEPUTY GOVERNOR (Translation): When your husband hits you at home it’s worse than my words to you.

REPORTER: So far nobody hurt. What about tomorrow or the next day?

DEPUTY GOVERNOR (Translation): Tell him I am not the one who makes decisions. He has a right to ask but I have a right not to answer.

Rumours are swirling that tonight is eviction night. I find Vichet at home - a broken man.

CHAN VICHET (Translation): I don’t know what to do now, if they use force to evict us we have to protect our homes. If we can’t defeat them, we just have to watch them do it because we have no power.

At midnight, police set up roadblocks and hundreds of officers move into place. Colour coded T-shirts are handed out to the hundreds of workers the company have trucked in to do their dirty work. At 2am a car pulls up, and axes are handed out to the workers. Around the corner scores of trucks are standing by to haul away the rubble. In the pre-dawn, the colour coordinated workers take up positions and on the dot of 6am, they attack.

MAN (Translation): Get them out, get them out, get the camera out of here.

At every entrance I'm turned back.

REPORTER: So, what's happening? Tell me what's happening. What's happening?

POLICEMAN: I don't know. It's the order. I don't know.

REPORTER: What's the order?

POLICEMAN: I don't know. I'm sorry.

The demolition work is swift. Within a few hours, it's all over.
This is the ruins of Vichet's house. I spoke to him last night at midnight - or just before midnight. He was pretty resigned to losing his place, and here it is, gone.
When the bulldozer driver ploughs through people trying to save their possessions, they strike back. The company's fire extinguishers are used to disperse them. An injured woman is carried out as others salvage what they can.

WOMAN (Translation): We paid money for these blocks, thousand of dollars, look what they have done to us by bulldozing these homes. Some were still asleep, got hurt and were hospitalised.

WOMAN 2 (Translation): My childrens jewellery.. ring, earrings, all gone. Why can’t they let us move without force?

WOMAN (Translation): They won’t let us take anything we had to fight to get our belongings. The owner of that house was unconscious and was taken to hospital.

Human rights workers observing proceedings could point to several laws broken here today.

NALY PILORGE, HUMAN RIGHTS CAMPAIGNER: What the company has done with the complicity of authorities - military police and local police - is illegal. This was designated a social concession and it was sold to a company, which is prohibited. And if you see those buildings behind you, this is next - all these people that have been watching, I'm sure they know they're next. This is a very valuable piece of land. It's a really sad, sad situation, and again, illegal and with the complicity of the authorities.

The workmen on the roof of Australia's new embassy also had a ringside view of the destruction. The building is going up right in the middle of the eviction zone. All around it communities have been forced out or will be shortly - even though they have a strong legal claim to be there.

AUSTRALIAN ANTHEM: Australians all let us rejoice for we are young and free. We've golden soil... Our home is girt by sea...

It's Australia Day at Ambassador Margaret Adamson's residence.

REPORTER: Are you concerned that violent and illegal evictions are going on on the doorstep of the new Australian embassy?

MARGARET ADAMSON, AMBASSADOR TO CAMBODIA: Well, Of course we have concerns about how the Cambodian Government manages the issue of land tenure. It's a long-standing issue in the country and we have concerns which we express to the Cambodian Government on a regular basis.

REPORTER: This was right on the doorstep of the new Australian embassy, so it must be... doubly embarrassing for you at this stage, no?

MARGARET ADAMSON: I'm conscious of the location. .. I don't find it embarrassing, no. I find it a matter as I've said before to you, that is a matter which is played out in different parts of the country, so I don't see find on the doorstep of the Australian embassy any less deserving of our attention than anywhere else in the country.

REPORTER: Under the 2001 law, don't they have residency rights or possession rights?

MARGARET ADAMSON: It's very difficult to prove, though, isn't it? It's very difficult to prove...

REPORTER: If they've been there for longer than five years noticeably without violence... I understand what you say.

MARGARET ADAMSON: Absolutely. Absolutely. No, I understand what the principles are, but it is difficult indeed to actually have the documentation, documentation that is accepted, to enable those claims to be respected.

Together the international community pledged $1 billion last year to the Cambodian Government. The Global Witness report 'Country For Sale' is scathing about the role played by donor countries like Australia.

‘THE GLOBAL WITNESS’: “ Cambodia’s international donor community has consistently failed to bring the government to book for blatant violations of its commitments to protect the human rights of Cambodians, fight corruption and ensure the protection of land and natural resources.”

The land grabbing frenzy is going on right around the country. Of them all, one case stands out for its brazen abuse of power. The village of Kong Yu is in the remote north-east of the country near the Vietnamese border. The indigenous Jarai people here are culturally and ethnically distinct from the Khmers and the Vietnamese. They live in tight-knit communities and practice shifting agriculture on their ancestral lands. But the traditional ways are under serious threat.
With a combination of lies, intimidation and financial incentives, a well connected woman is snapping up their land for a rubber plantation. Her name is Keat Kolney, sister of the Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. Her husband is Secretary Of State at the Ministry of Land Management, which is responsible for registration of indigenous lands. This footage shows the businesswoman in Kong Yu village handing out sarongs and cash.

DAN KING, COMMUNITY LEGAL EDUCATION CENTRE: The villagers in their mind on that particular day, they were not clear whether this was a donation by a rich state party official or whether this was, in fact, money for the purpose of selling the land, so in their minds they were clear. They were donating from the small, grassy hill called the Dombok, and it's approximately 50 hectares. Subsequently more has been cleared and Keat Kolney now claims 450 hectares of land.

Dan King is an Australian lawyer advising a team of Cambodian lawyers who've taken on the villagers' case. He says Cambodian law clearly states that indigenous land cannot be sold.

DAN KING: It's basically an open-and-shut case in terms of the documentation and the evidence. It's about the court having the courage to make a very difficult decision against a very high powered, connected individual to make sure that justice is done.

The villagers of Kong Yu have told their version of events on video. An American filmmaker helped them with the technology, but the villagers acted all the parts and filmed it themselves. The first scene shows the arrival of the company's brokers who want some land. The villagers declined, but were told that Prime Minister Hun Sen needed the land to house disabled soldiers, and if they didn't sell, it would be taken from them anyway. This was a blatant lie, but the villagers felt powerless to resist and agreed to hand over approximately 50 hectares. Then there's the party scene. The villagers killed a pig and the company supplied the beer, and in the middle of the festivities, out comes the inkpad again.
Men from the company even went around the village in the middle of the night waking people up to get their thumb prints. The villagers only realised what it all meant later.

WOMAN 3 (Translation): After we agreed to give the land to them, some time later the company came with trucks and bulldozers and started to clear the land beyond the boundary hill. They damaged our rubber trees and the villagers went to stop them from clearing the land. All of us, young and old, went to the boundary to stop them.

But they failed, and the authorities accused them of disturbing the peace and locked up seven people. I approached plantation owner Keat Kolney through her lawyer to request an interview, but was told she was too busy. And at Kolney's plantation office near Kong Yu village, I get a frosty reception.

GUARD (Translation): Didn’t you see the sign? Unauthorised entry prohibited. See? The sign is over here. Unauthorised entry prohibited.

Back in the village, the lawyers are discovering that the community is now divided - into those who want to sell more land and those who want to get the land they lost back.

DAN KING: For the first time that we have been working with the villagers, for the first time they are thinking about selling a large piece of land - the whole community, not just a few families, but half the community - wants to sell the land. That is a serious situation. We won't have a case. There won't be a Kong Yu case if they sell their land.

Crucially, the village chief has turned.

VILLAGE CHIEF (Translation): The company authorised me to sort out the land issue and the villagers gave me the authority to do that as well.

DAN KING: The current village chief was then appointed because he was one of the strongest and most vocal advocates for fighting the case and to be getting the land back. Since then I think he has not seen the case move forward in the courts. As I said, he's obviously been talking to the company and his position has changed. He no longer supports the case. He is advocating the sale of land, and it is very sad to watch.

While the lawyers try to get him to stay the course and fight the case, he's now a staunch supporter of the company.

VILLAGE CHIEF (Translation): I am afraid we will lose the case in court because the company is rich and we are poor. We have accepted their money, how can we win? The whole village has accepted the money by making a thumbprint.

Some of the villagers are suspicious as to why he changed his mind.

WOMAN 3 (Translation): In fact, the district and the village authorities do not support the people since there is nothing in it for them, I think that they support the company because they gain from it. The villagers have nothing, all they have is the land.

But the company is stepping up its efforts to get the community to sell their remaining land, and now the local authorities are offering them more cash and even a school if they agree to sell. Like their compatriots right around this country, the villagers are quickly learning the ways of the modern world - where money talks.






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