While rights groups seek to find fair deals for families displaced in Phnom Penh developments, the foreign minister says many of the capital’s squatters are “professionals,” moving from place to place to demand money when they are expelled.
In remarks at the opening ceremony of a consulate in Lowell, Mass., last month, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said residents of the Dey Krahorm community, who were evicted earlier this year, were squatters living on state land that had been granted to a private company for development.
“Nowadays, there are many squatters in Phnom Penh, and these squatters always grab people’s land,” he said. “When they push them out, the squatters always demand money. When they get the money, they go build another hut to live in, then demand money again. They are professional squatters.”
In fact, the situation is more complicated, and, critics say, indicative of the abuses suffered by many of the displaced.
Rights and opposition officials objected to the minister’s portrayal of the displaced.
The Dey Krahorm community was a cluster of shacks on 4 hectares of land in Phnom Penh’s Tonle Basaac commune, Chamkarmon district. Around 6,000 people had lived in the neighborhood before they were gradually pushed out, starting from 2003 and ending in January 2009.
Residents, many of whom were resettled on 3 hectares of land outside the city, claimed they had lived in the area since the 1980s.
Land was granted to development company 7NG as a social land concession, a move opposed by Dey Krahorm residents.
In July 2003, ahead of national elections, Prime Minister Hun Sen granted rights to some families in the neighborhood to live on the land. 7NG, however, continued with evictions, and many families were forced to settle in Choam Chao commune, in remote Dangkor district.
Residents complained they were being compensated below market price for their land. Protesters were evicted by Phnom Penh security forces, military police and soldiers, armed with electric batons, rifles and bulldozers, tractors and water trucks. Several were injured.
Meanchey District Governor Kouch Chamroeun told VOA Khmer he has never experienced forcible evictions and prefers peaceful negotiations.
Rights groups claim the evictions were a contradiction of a 2001 land law and blamed the government for a lack of responsibility.
Lao Monghay, a senior researcher at the Asian Human Rights Commission, in Hong Kong, questioned Hor Nahmong’s accusations.
The authorities had been careless, and the ownership of the land was questionable, he said.
“Whose land is this?” he said. “How did they grant the land to the company? Was there any transparency? Any bid? How much did the company pay to the government? So the top government officials who have big houses and land in Phnom Penh, did they really build them by themselves? Don’t you think they also took someone’s house and someone’s land after the Khmer Rouge regime?”
If the people of Dey Krahorm were illegal, under which law was it, he asked. When people began to return to the city following the Khmer Rouge, no one in the country possessed a thing, he said.
“The Khmer Rouge revoked all land and house possession,” he said. The people of Dey Krahorm lived freely after into the 1990s under the State of Cambodia.
“If they first moved to live in that area, why didn’t the government immediately prohibit this?” he said. “So this is the authority’s mistake, not the people’s mistake. The people did nothing wrong.”
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy said Hor Namhong’s remarks “are to protect the big, evil companies and businessmen who depend on the dictator leader in order to steal and rob the Khmer people of their property.”
“The people can’t accept such language, because the people are the owners of the country,” he said.
Thun Saray, president of the rights group Adhoc, told VOA Khmer the people in Dey Krahorm were not to blame, but the company had taken their land away.
“People lived there for a long time before the company existed,” he said. “When the people oppose the company’s policy, it is their right to do so because they have their own plot of land in the Dey Krahorm community.They should respect their land rights.”
Resources watchdog Global Witness has reported that 45 percent of Cambodian land belongs to private companies or powerful individuals, while millions of dollars from land concessions disappear from national coffers.
The UN, meanwhile, has urged Cambodia to cease forced evictions across the country, warning that such policies do not meet international rights standards and are against UN conventions.