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Cambodia: Demolition of Houses in Borei Keila

The problem of forced evictions is turning for the worse in Cambodia while citizen dissatisfaction over existing resettlement schemes is also rising. While land grabbing is a nationwide problem, it's most evident in the urban areas. In fact, residents of Monivong Hospital, Sombok Chap, Dey Kraham, Group 78, Borei Keila, and Boeung Kak have been evicted already from their homes.

The recent record of forced eviction, which grabbed global attention, happened in Borei Keila, located opposite Bak Tuok High School in central Phnom Penh. This community is home to roughly 1,776 families, including 86 families with members who are HIV positive.

A press statement issued by human rights organization Licadho gives a brief history of the struggle of the residents of the community to assert their land and housing rights:

Demolition in Borei Keila. Photo from blog of Faine Greenwood

Demolition in Borei Keila. Photo from blog of Faine Greenwood

Villagers first settled on the land, which was the site of a police training facility, in 1992.

In early 2003, a “land-sharing” arrangement was proposed for Borei Keila, which allowed a private company to develop part of the area for commercial purposes while providing alternative housing to the residents on the remaining land. The idea was hailed because rather than being evicted, villagers would receive compensation for their land in the form of apartments in newly-constructed buildings.

In June 2003, Prime Minister Hun Sen authorized a social land concession for approximately 4.6 hectares of Borei Keila (30% of the total 14.12 hectares of land). Construction giant Phanimex company was contracted by the government to construct 10 apartment buildings on 2 hectares of land for the villagers, in return for obtaining ownership of an additional 2.6 hectares for commercial development.

By May 2007, the Phnom Penh municipality had allocated apartments to only 335 families, including 14 HIV/AIDS-affected families. More than 100 other families, their houses demolished to clear space for new apartment buildings, were left living under tarpaulins in squalid conditions.

In June 2009, 20 HIV affected families in the community were forced to leave their homes and were relocated to Tuol Sambo village of Khan Dangkor, about 20 kilometers outside of the capital. This was strongly condemned by both local and international rights groups as the relocation site was not suitable for human habitation. Moreover, those with HIV were isolated in a remote part of the area which made them more vulnerable to discrimination and social stigmatization.

This case was amply documented in a human rights portal, Sithi.

Phan Imex, the company whose contract with the government was to build ten apartments for villagers, managed to build only eight buildings leaving roughly 300 Borei Keila families excluded from the original agreement. Last month, the company demolished the houses of these ‘excluded’ residents with the help from the armed forces. The demolition and dispersal became violent.

Immediately after the incident, a joint statement was issued by several civil society organizations which strongly condemned the violent destruction of the homes:

The destruction of these homes marks yet another sad turn for a development that was once promoted as a model alternative to the eviction and off-site relocation of the Phnom Penh's urban poor.

The statement accused the police of doing nothing to stop the violent demolition of homes:

The demolition was carried out by Phanimex employees and paid workers alongside an excavator, which crushed houses before residents had the opportunity to clear out their belongings. The process was overseen by over 100 mixed police forces who arrested and detained eight community representatives, including one minor who were taken to the main police commissioner and three bodyguards who were taken to an unknown location. Police also fired tear gas and live ammunition on the residents of Borey Keila.

Human rights monitors on site witnessed workers using a jackhammer to break up a large rock surrounding a group of police officers, who then took the stones and threw those at residents. Some also attacked residents with sticks. At least 12 people were injured including one policeman, some seriously.

Human Rights Watch reported that more than 64 people were injured and eight residents were detained:

“State security forces that were present used tear gas and rubber bullets against the residents, and both sides threw rocks, sticks, and bottles. More than 64 people were reportedly injured. The authorities arrested at least eight of the residents, one of whom was released on bail on January 18 while seven remain in detention. These eight residents, including two children, have all been charged under both article 218 (“intentional acts of violence with aggravating circumstances”) and article 504 (“obstruction of public officials with aggravating circumstances”) of the Cambodian penal code.

After the dispersal, there have been a series of peaceful protests by the community demanding the intervention of national government officials. They want the government to halt the demolitions and to release the detained protesters. A letter was also sent to to the Cambodian Prime Minister urging the leader to resolve the Borei Keila issue.

Early this month, about 100 residents from Borei Keila and 50 from Beoung Kak who were marching on Monivong Boulevard were blocked by more than 100 riot police personnel and a violent clash took place. Witnesses saw the police pushing six women into a police van, according to an article reported by the Cambodia Daily.

The arrested six female protesters were released after an overnight detention. City Hall then defended its action to arrest the female protesters

Phnom Penh Capital Hall has no other choice but to take an appropriate counter measure in order to maintain public security, safety and order for people in Phnom Penh so that laws can be effectively enforced as a principle of the rule of law can be applied.

Land grabbing has also spurred the rise of activism in many rural and urban communities. In one instance, land rights activists organized an ‘Avatar’ rally to oppose the planned destruction of a forested area. The issue also prompted several groups to highlight the suffering of women and children during evictions

It gave the women a platform where they could tell the world about the suffering involved in forced evictions and sent a clear call to government officials to take immediate action on the ongoing scandal of forced evictions and land grabbing in the country.

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