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City Candidates Eye Urban Displaced

[Editor's note: In the weeks leading into national polls, VOA Khmer will explore a wide number of election issues. The "Election Issues 2008" series will air stories on Tuesday and Wednesday, followed by a related "Hello VOA" guest on Thursday. This is the first in a two-part series examining the worries of the urban displaced.]

On a road thick with swirling dust, at dusk, a group of villagers walked home for the day. One of them was Heang Chansei, a 45-year-old mother of two and part of an increasing number of Phnom Penh's urban displaced. She was evicted with 1,500 others in 2006 from the Sparrow's Nest squatter neighborhood of Phnom Penh, along the Tonle Bassac river, moved here 20 kilometers outside the capital, to Andong Thmei village, Dangkao district.

"In the capital, it was easy for us to earn money, and we don't know what kind of businesses we should make here," she said.

In the Sparrow's Nest, she earned a living by selling fresh water clams to city residents. Now, she does the same thing, but her profits are cut in half by the high costs of transport, $5 per day, to ride into town.

Development projects in Phnom Penh have ousted entire communities of squatters, people like Heang Chansei, who now find themselves in makeshift neighborhoods outside the capital, far from jobs, schools and clean water. Phnom Penh has nearly 600 such communities, with 150,000 facing possible displacement.

Top officials and party candidates competing in July's general election say the problem will be a main focus during their campaigns.

Critics say these communities can be evicted with little advanced warning, and are often not properly compensated. But government officials say they are taking up state land and need to be moved.

Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Pa Socheatvong acknowledged the citizens of Andong Thmei were living in difficult circumstances, but he said the government cannot resolve all issues for all evictees, though it has been able to provide clean water, electricity and schools to other displaced communities.

"However, they can own legal land now and that is better than where they lived on illegal land," he said.

Outspoken opposition lawmaker Son Chhay, of the Sam Rainsy Party, criticized such evictions, saying the residents are severely under-compensated, getting a mere fraction of the worth of land that can fetch up to $2,000 per square meter.

Srei Sothea, director of the 7NG company, tasked with developing the cleared land, disputed the figure. "The company has spent millions of dollars for construction of apartments, and it has not sold one square meter of land," he said of another development, in a neighborhood called Red Earth.

Sale or no, facilities or no, residents say they will vote for those who can change their lot, and politicians hope they can capitalize on this on Election Day.