As the attention of Cambodians and the international community remains focused on the aftermath of the disputed July parliamentary election, the evictees from Phnom Penh’s Borei Keila area are calling for help in solving their housing deadlock.
“We need the authorities, non-governmental organizations and Phan Imex [the company that evicted the community] to help us receive the promised housing. We don’t have a home anymore. We live in shelters, in inhuman sanitary conditions and the monsoon rains make it less bearable and more dangerous to our health,“ said community representative Pich Limkhuon.
In January last year, developer company Phan Imex, backed by Phnom Penh’s municipal authorities, rendered some 300 families in Borei Keila homeless during a violent eviction. Prior to the incident, community members signed a contract with Phan Imex, agreeing to vacate the land in exchange for apartments for 1,776 families in 10 blocks of flats that the company was to build on adjacent land. Suy Saphan, the owner of the company, backtracked on the deal in 2010 when she said Phan Imex would only be able to finish 8 out of the 10 promised buildings because of bankruptcy.
Back in 2012, the company and local authorities ordered the evictees to move to relocation sites outside Phnom Penh. Many human rights observers have since criticised the conditions at the sites and the amount of compensation offered. In his August 2013 report, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, professor Surya Subedi, noted that people who relocated suffer poor living conditions and lack of employment opportunities, coupled with limited access to health and education services.
But not all families moved to the relocation sites – many stayed on or returned to Borei Keila. Those who stayed live in tents, half destroyed, delapidated housing or under the stairs of completed buildings and are facing increasingly abominable sanitary conditions. Due to lack of public infrastructure, the community is surrounded by what can be described as a “mountains of waste“, mainly generated by neighbors from surrounding apartment blocks.
“People keep throwing garbage out of their windows and don’t care to look where it lands. And a lot of it ends up in front of my shack, “ said community representative, Chenda Has.
Has, who lives with her ailing mother and a three-year-old daughter, stressed that because of the mounting waste, polluted environment and heavy rains many children suffer from diarrhea and the elderly from tuberculosis. She quickly added that the monsoon rains make her already desperate situation even worse.
“When it rains we cannot sleep, because the dirty water is reaching up to our knees. We have to sit up on chairs, in a pool of dirt and all the creatures that live in the trash in front of my doorstep. I really would like to move but I have no money to do so.“
Phnom Penh’s new governor, Pa Socheatevong, upon taking his office in May of this year pledged to solve the Borei Keila land dispute, but so far he has been slow to act. The evictees have turned to the city hall for help on multiple occasions, asking the authorities to facilitate a meeting with the company. Pich Limkhuon maintains all the community wants at this stage is to sit down with the company representatives and talk about a reasonable solution to their housing problems.
“We have been asking the new governor to facilitate a meeting with Phan Imex many times but we never received an answer. We do not care that the company cannot provide the remaining buildings, we just want to talk about a good solution for everyone,“ said Limkhuon.
Cambodia has been suffering from a land grabbing and forced evictions crisis for years now. Local rights groups allege that since 2000 at least 700,000 people across the country have been affected by land disputes. In the capital itself, it is estimated that at least 145,000 people, or approximately 10 percent of Phnom Penh’s 2 million population, have been evicted since 2000.
At least on paper, the Land Law of 2001 facilitates land registration and protects Cambodians against land grabs. The legislation was passed to clean up the ownership mess inherited from the Khmer Rouge regime, which abolished all notions of private property. However, according to rights groups it is rarely implemented. Disregard for the law is said to be almost universal when property interests of regular Cambodians clash with economic interests of companies and local politicians.
“The Borei Keila case involves high ranking people, with close ties to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. Neither the authorities nor the company respect the relevant laws. The policy of the city hall is to arrest people protesting against forced evictions, not to protect them,“ said deputy head of land and resources monitoring at Adhoc, Chan Soveth.
Suy Saphan and Long Dimanche, spokesman for Phnom Penh City Hall, could not be reached for comment.
Phnom Penh governor Pa Socheatevong declined to comment due to a busy schedule.