Greener Grass.

Phnom Penh. Brait Bra. 2012

Phnom Penh. Brait Bra. 2012

Cambodian Government sponsored land grabbing reaches epidemic levels.

 On the horizon of Cambodia’s future lies a mish-mash of high-rise casinos and five star beach resorts juxtaposed between swelling refugee camps and rubbish dump homes.

Hundreds of thousands who escaped the horrifying Khmer Rouge regime are suffering, homeless once more. The nation’s future, housing, livelihood and personal security are all severely threatened.

Last month whilst working in the province Brait Bra, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, I discussed the problem of land grabbing with Peng Sophan, a influential community leader. Sitting wringing his hands, his face is weathered, exhausted, jaded, with a monotone breath Sophan told the hauntingly common story of loss and violence during life under Pol Pot. As a survivor, Sophan has dedicated his life to re-building his country and community. Sacrificing his independence, he cares for 67 abandoned children at ‘The Lighthouse’.

As we spoke, rumors were buzzing like flies around the covered market, whispers alleging that virtually all the land surrounding the slum area had been sold. The bustling, multi-cultured community boasts vital schools, political representation, and numerous householders holding official papers, stamped by the Phnom Penh land governor, Say Pan.

Sadly this is insignificant, Sophan’s-and his friends- fears were confirmed; the ground underneath their home had been sold. The buyer was an influential ally of the local politicians, the wealthy Korean real-estate company, Phepimex Shukaku.

Sophan’s eyes alighted with anger as he exploded;

“What I am going to do with the children? Under Pol Pot we suffered, but quickly. Under this democratic nation, we will die slow and painfully.”

Tolga, A child at Sophan's childrens' home in Cambodia.

Tolga, A child at Sophan’s childrens’ home in Cambodia 2011.

The majority of local families hold no official paper to pay claim to their land and will be offered no compensation. Under the 2001 Land Law, anyone who has used the land for at least five years can claim full title. Established in 2005, Lighthouse’s beacon for justice and support from the government goes unnoticed.

Under greatest threat at present are about 47 families – from Brait Bra whom are now living with HIV/AIDS. The affected families are to be taken to the isolated relocation site of Toul Sambo, 20km from Phnom Penh.

Living in a temporary shelter on land – described as a “leper colony” – lacking basic facilities, these families will be far from their jobs and the hospitals offering them the medication they need to survive.

These evictions alone will see an estimated 4,250 families loosing their homes and businesses. Representing the biggest forced relocation of people from Phnom Penh since the Khmer Rouge seized control of the city in 1975.

Land ownership has always been a contentious issue in Cambodia. Since the communist era of the 1970’s, the Khmer Rouge regime saw the eradication of private ownership of land, collectivising property and terrain, whilst eliminating anyone who opposed.

The fall of the regime 1979 saw survivors and those who fled to neighboring countries return to lay claim to the ruined land. Housing the large, young and overwhelming poor population in Cambodia has posed major problems ever since, complicated further by the absolute lack of land registry documentation.

Sophan’s story is sadly all too common in the region. According to the World Bank, Phnom Penh, a major site of urban development, has witnessed 133,000 people (more than 10 percent of its population) evicted since 1990. Nation wide forty-five per cent of the country’s entire landmass has been legally sold off.

Cambodia, a precarious debtor-nation underpinned by more than $1000m of hand-outs from the international community, has become a refuge for opportunists and their liquid assets, escaping the paralysed financial markets of the West. Decorating the plush riverside hotels, venture capitalists are pitching up, wearing neatly pressed linen ‘jungle wear’. Attracted by the country’s natural beauty and the boom in tourism.

Prime minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have, in effect, put the country up for sale. Crucially, they permit investors to form 100% foreign-owned companies in Cambodia that can buy land and real estate outright.

No other country in the world countenances such a deal. Even in Thailand and Vietnam, where similar land speculation and profiteering is well under way, foreigners can be only minority shareholders.

Leading human rights groups have denounced as rights violation that powerful individuals and private companies have obtained ‘prime real estate’ at little or no cost, with local state institutions often benefiting from the financial transactions.

It is abundantly clear to observers, including the World Bank and Amnesty International, that by making these private deals, Hun Sen is denying prosperity to his people, causing the country’s social fabric to unwind like thread from a bobbin. “It is barbaric”,claims Amnesty international, “the Cambodian authorities’ are drastically failing to meet their moral and legal obligations to their people”.

Cowering beneath the banner of spineless rhetoric, ‘necessary for development’, the government promotes future positive benefits for local communities, Mann Chhoeun, deputy governor of Phnom Penh proclaiming only last week “Our main purpose is to eradicate poverty”.

Yet, the majority of obliterated communities have been sitting empty for months, soullessly un-inhabited; lying in wait of ‘critical’ development. But this is development with a difference. Investors want more, many are speculating on the future value of the land, believing that by adding only modest infrastructure, perhaps attaching big-name hoteliers, they would reap vast profits in seven to 10 years.

Walking past the empty, fenced off land, Sophan said:

“It’s no wonder we have no trust or respect in the government. We are being robbed, from our ancestral soil, we have no power, we are helpless”

A slum in Phnom Penh. The UN has asked Cambodia to hold companies to account over land seizures.

A slum in Phnom Penh 2013. The UN has asked Cambodia to hold companies to account over land seizures.

Bubbling under the seemingly calm and harmonious surface of theses communities, locals threaten the past two decades of relative peace, promising “there will be more violence”.

Although he bathes his speeches in socialist values, Hen Sun, offers no tangible solution. He has recognized in a recent comment that, “Land-grabbing creates serious threat to the social and political stability of Cambodia.” In opposition to this a close adviser, working for the Ministry of Social Affairs, who requested anonymity, told me: “Hun Sen personally believes that liberal democracy is unsuited to a country whose skills have been drained and demographics wildly skewed by the Khmer Rouge”.

Currently there is no sign of Cambodian authorities slowing down the pace of the land-grabbing orgy and forced evictions in the near future. The democratic state seems chronically unable, or unwilling, to respect its own laws, regulations and sub-decrees.

It is highly unlikely the evicted families will ever be able to afford to live in the expensive apartment blocks, or shop in the glitzy malls slated to be built on their homes – if, indeed such developments ever take place.

The government behaves as though poor communities are incapable of involvement in development, and that their land must therefore be handed over to companies who claim the ability to do so.

To the contrary, many studies and initiates have shown how, given the opportunity, Cambodian communities are fully able to effectively manage their own land, and even enter into innovative partnerships with big business to bring income and development.

To stem this tide of human rights violations land grabbing and other economic pillage must be brought to light in international political arenas. It is time for the government to face up to the reality of social unrest in Cambodia rather than keep perpetuating the myth of ‘vital development’.

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