x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Property fall fails to stop evictions in Cambodia

Advocacy groups say by violating the lawn on land ownership, the government has put lives of about 70,000 people in jeopardy.

Borei Sontapheap stands by his makeshift dwelling at a site near Phnom Penh, after being evicted from his home in the city centre.
Borei Sontapheap stands by his makeshift dwelling at a site near Phnom Penh, after being evicted from his home in the city centre.

PHNOM PENH // A property boom in Cambodia's capital has seen the houses of thousands of poor residents cleared to make way for upscale developments. Although the real estate bubble has burst, the evictions continue.

Advocacy groups say about 70,000 people are in danger of losing their homes since the government began selling off land and they accuse officials of violating a 2001 law that granted residents land ownership. "The 2001 land law is good. The problem is lack of enforcement of the law and the complicity of the government," said Naly Pilorge, who heads the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights.

Cambodia has seen massive population shifts over the past few decades, beginning in about 1970 when villagers fled to the capital to escape civil war. Then in 1975, the Khmer Rouge emptied Phnom Penh of its inhabitants and sent them to labour camps in the countryside. When the regime fell in 1979, displaced people converged on Phnom Penh and took up residence wherever they could. In 2001, the government enacted a law that said those who had occupied the same plot of land for at least five years could own it.

Then came the property boom. Cambodia remains South-east Asia's poorest country after East Timor, but its economy has grown steadily since peace returned in the late 1990s. In the past five years, that growth has been "exceptional", according to a February report by the International Monetary Fund, which measured GDP growth at 10 per cent in 2007. Local and foreign developers, especially from South Korea and Vietnam, began to buy property. Land prices shot up as much as 100 per cent in 2007, according to the IMF. But they fell by one-quarter in the second half of 2008.

"One could predict that there would be demand for residential buildings, but there were dozens of suppliers and no co-ordination," said Chan Sophall, the president of the Cambodia Economic Association. "The supply simply exceeded the demand." The global financial crisis has had an effect, too. "A few major urban projects have been scaled back or cancelled outright as foreign investors [mainly from South Korea] reassess their commitments in the face of tighter funding conditions abroad," the IMF said.

Despite the slowdown, the wave of evictions has not stopped. One morning in January, Borei Sontapheap watched as bulldozers approached his community of Dey Krahorm. Military and riot police accompanied the heavy machinery, along with about 100 crowbar-carrying employees of the 7NG construction company. When the site was levelled, the company put about 80 families who had refused to leave on buses and dumped them off at a site 16km outside the city, according to the families and advocacy groups.

"I lost a house. I lost rice to feed the family and the money in the house," said Mr Sontapheap, standing beside the makeshift shelter that is his family's new home. "If we knew in advance at least we could sell the wood from the house," said Rani, another victim of eviction. "At least we would get a few hundred dollars back." Ms Rani has also lost her livelihood. She used to sell fruit in the market in Phnom Penh, but now she cannot afford the transportation back to the city. Nor can she afford to send her children to school.

The company has offered each family who owned a house in Dey Krahorm one of the apartments it is building at the new site. But residents say those flats, worth about US$5,000 (Dh18,400) each, are nowhere near the value of the homes they lost. One square metre of land in central Phnom Penh is worth about $5,000 and the two-hectare Dey Krahorm site is valued at $44 million, according to Ms Pilorge, of the Cambodian human rights group, and other observers.

The company initially offered homeowners $20,000 in compensation, but many residents were convinced they had a legal right to keep the land and refused the offer. Now that it is clear that neither the government nor the courts will back their claims, they say they will accept the offer. But 7NG says it is too late. "If the company gives them the money it will make the people who took the apartments unhappy," said Chang Bunna, a company spokesman.

The deputy governor of Phnom Penh municipality, Mann Choeun, who is responsible for housing issues, did not respond to requests for comment. But he told a local newspaper that Dey Krahorm residents were squatting on public land. International organisations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, condemned the eviction, as did the United Nations' special rapporteur on adequate housing, Raquel Rolnik.

"Unfortunately this is by no means an isolated case and the increase in forced evictions throughout Cambodia is very alarming," she said in a Jan 30 statement. The controversy surrounding Dey Krahorm may prove to be minor compared to what the government has planned for Boeung Kak, a lake in central Phnom Penh. The government has signed a contract with a private company to fill in 90 per cent of the lake and create residential and commercial real estate. The development would displace as many as 30,000 people. Critics say the plan is illegal because it violates the land law and predict it will be an ecological disaster.

Already flooding has worsened since filling began and some homes are reported to have begun to sink as water seeps into what was once solid earth. In the meantime, many of the luxury apartments built at the height of the property boom stand empty, and work has ground to a halt on other developments. "Why the urgency to evict people?" Ms Pilorge asked. jferrie@thenational.ae