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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Cambodia’s Urban Renewal Turns Ugly


The government is using the fiction of slum clearance to kick the poor off valuable property

Just a stone’s throw away from Cambodia’s National Assembly in Phnom Penh, a fading billboard trumpets an urban renewal campaign promising to transform 100 poor communities into thriving neighborhoods within a year. Included is the decimated slum that lies behind parliament – Dey Krahorm, or Red Earth village.

The billboard, erected a few months before national elections four years ago, shows Prime Minister Hun Sen leading a band of impassioned officials as they stride toward this much publicized goal.

They never reached it. After the election, urban renewal turned into poverty expulsion. Red Earth now resembles a moonscape of rubble, teetering shacks and evacuated spaces. Fewer than 100 of the nearly 1,000 families who lived there when the billboard was erected remain. The rest have been trucked off to one of the many relocation sites 20 to 30 kilometers outside the city, most of which lack electricity, clean water, toilets, schools, clinics and, importantly, access to jobs.

Excluding Burma, “Cambodia has the most abusive record of forced evictions in the region,” said David Pred, the country director of Bridges Across Borders, an international non-governmental organization formed to combat the root causes of violence.

In an interesting twist, the Cambodian Red Cross, which has been appealing for donations to resettle squatters, is headed by the prime minister’s wife, Bun Rany Hun Sen. Besides widespread allegations of corruption and misuse of funds, the Cambodia Red Cross’s appeal for funds to resettle people evicted as a result of land grabs by people closely tied to the prime minister is, to use the phrase of one diplomat, “more than a little off-putting.”

An official at the International Red Cross agreed: “There’s something not quite kosher about this,” he said.

Although evictions have been a companion to Asia’s “asymmetrical growth”, as Pred calls it, over the past 25 years, the situation in Cambodia is exacerbated by the lack of legal protection for those facing eviction. “At least in a country like the Philippines, affected people can go to court and a have some chance at stopping [evictions] or getting fair compensation. That is not possible in Cambodia today,” Pred said.

Dey Krahorm resident Lee Luleng was blunter: “If I call the police [for help] they will arrest me.” Lee Luleng, 61, is among those who have declined the offer of either relocation outside the city or compensation equivalent to less than 10 percent of the land’s market value of more than US$3,000 per square meter from 7NG, the shadowy company that claims ownership of the land. (7NG describes itself as a publicly listed company in a country that does not have a stock exchange. In a telephone interview, 7NG chairman Srey Sothea said the company is not listed on a foreign bourse and that all its funds are sourced in Cambodia. He declined, however, to identify the exact source of the company’s funds or name its board of directors. He did say, however, that 7NG is “seeking foreign investment.”)

Declining a bad deal from 7NG can come at a heavy price. At least 13 residents of Dev Krathorn, including six community representatives, have been charged with criminal offenses, according to the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, which has documented a three-year campaign of what it calls “harassment, intimidation and provocation” against the community by private security officers and municipal police.

“They shout, ‘Get out, dogs!’ We shout back, ‘You’re worse than Pol Pot,’” is how Lee Luleng described the frequent standoffs with police and security officers. Along with insults and obscenities, police sometimes toss bags of urine at them, residents say. Police erected a wall along one end of the community to block access to street-side shops (forcing owners to sell or relocate) and tried unsuccessfully to block access to the market that is the community’s main source of income.

Srey Sothea, the 7NG head, said no employees of his company were involved in altercations with residents of Dey Krathorm. “We’re a construction company, not a security firm,” he said. He also denied allegations that 7NG is paying police officers to drive the residents from their homes.

“When Cambodians hear the phrase ‘development plan’, they know it means evictions,” explained Choun Chamrong, a land-rights program officer at the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Organization. “Usually they give up quickly because they know they are up against companies or individuals connected to the government,” she explained. In 2006, Adhoc recorded 16 cases of entire communities being forcibly evicted. Last year, the figure rose to 26.

Brittis Edman, a researcher with Amnesty International, pointed to another disquieting trend. “What we are seeing over the last year is that the courts are increasingly being used as tools to silence housing rights activists,” she said before the February release of AI’s report “Rights Razed: Forced Evictions in Cambodia.” The report warned that “at least 150,000” Cambodians are at risk of forced evictions.

The government’s response was unintentionally amusing. It insisted there were no forced evictions in Cambodia and accused Amnesty International of trying to grab headlines. Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak went further. He told reporters that if the government did not respect human rights, it would have expelled Amnesty’s representatives from Cambodia.

What he failed to mention, however, was that police tried to stop Edman from meeting a group of residents facing eviction near Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak Lake on February 10. “They told us we didn’t have a permit to hold the meeting, but we explained we were just having a discussion,” Edman said. After a brief face-off, police allowed the discussion to proceed, but they photographed every resident, journalist and activist present, and tape-recorded the meeting.

Villagers say they are crammed together now in a ditch with no access to clean water and no source of income. The impact of forced evictions on public health has yet to be measured – at either the local, provincial or national levels – but NGOs working with communities that have been evicted are scrambling to find funds to expand their medical outreach programs. Illnesses include malnutrition, weakened immune systems, bronchitis and other lung infections, skin rashes, ear and eye infections, diarrhea, fever, intestinal worms, fungal infections, and post-traumatic stress.

Andong, a resettlement site where the evicted have been moved to about 20 kilometers from Phnom Penh, is a public-health disaster. The lack of sanitation, clean water and access to health care leaves the 1,500 families crammed into what has been called a “fetid swamp” highly vulnerable to any outbreak of infectious disease, health workers warn.

Five children died of dengue fever there in March last year alone, resident Kat Vijay recalls. Like most of residents of the site, Kat was evicted from Sambok Chap, a settlement along the banks of the Bassac River in Phnom Penh in June 2006.

Resident Sum Khum says living in Andong is worse than the refugee camp in which she spent 13 years on the Thai border. “Then, we had food and water. We had medicine and schools. Aid workers used to visit us,” said the 74-year-old widow. “Now, we have nothing. Sometimes the Christians come with rice and noodles, but they don’t bring enough.”

After almost two years, the evictees are still waiting for running water, electricity, a sewage system, a clinic, a school, and toilets that work. The 12 that were installed last year, along with 12 bathing stalls, can’t be used because they are not connected to running water.

When he lived in Phnom Penh, Kat Vijay worked in construction, mainly restoring the city’s French colonial mansions, for US$2.50 a day. Since then he has had no work except for a three-month stint building a row of 41 rooms at Andong for the Cambodian Red Cross, he says.

Brittis Edman of Amnesty International noted a new development in forced evictions that many diplomats may find even more off-putting. Some residents at resettlement sites are being threatened with eviction again, possibly to make more room for newcomers, she said.

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Charity dinner to provide cows for Cambodia's poor

An inventive scheme aiming to help impoverished families in rural Cambodia by providing short-term loans of cows is the motive behind a gala charity dinner and auction to be held in Osaka next month.

Hope International Development Agency, a nonprofit organization that helps people overcome poverty by providing human and financial resources, will host the May 10 event at The Ritz-Carlton, Osaka, in the city's Kita Ward.

Funds raised at the event will go toward the Cow Bank project, a part of Hope's microcredit program, which promotes self-help among rural families and sustainable development in Cambodia.

The Cow Bank operates literally as its name implies: Families borrow a cow from Hope and use it to fertilize and plough their fields. Ideally, the cow will give birth during the loan period, and when the calf becomes self-sufficient a few months later, the borrowed cow is "paid back" to Hope.

The family keeps the calf, while the returned cow is then loaned to another poor family. This cycle can be repeated several times, according to Hope.

The May 10 event, to begin at 7 p.m., is the second such event the organization has staged in the Kansai region.

The evening will feature a five-course dinner; a silent auction of items from developing countries, local artists and companies; live entertainment by Japanese musicians; a short video presentation on Hope's activities in Cambodia; and the opportunity to contribute to helping people in the nation.

The organization, based in Naka Ward, Nagoya, and headquartered in Canada, invites organizations, groups and individuals to attend the event. A table for 10 costs 220,000 yen, while individual tickets are 30,000 yen each.

Tickets for the gala event must be reserved by April 21.

The Osaka event, to be hosted in partnership with The Ritz-Carlton, Osaka, is sponsored by Lexus and AstraZeneca K.K.

A similar event hosted by Hope in Nagoya on Feb. 29 saw more than 450 people attend, along with media organizations including NHK and local TV and radio stations.

The Tokyo event is scheduled for May 9 at the Embassy of Canada.

For more information, visit www.hope.or.jp or call (052) 204-0530.

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U.N. chief calls for justice in Cambodia

UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- On the tenth anniversary of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot's death, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealed Tuesday for the senior leaders of the regime to be brought to justice.

"I would like to remind the international community of the urgent importance of bringing to closure one of history's darkest chapters," Ban said in a statement.

The secretary-general said he hoped that the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia "will soon deliver long-overdue justice for the people of Cambodia."

"The United Nations and the Royal Government of Cambodia remain actively engaged in efforts to hold the Khmer Rouge senior leaders and those most responsible accountable for their horrific crimes," he said.

Five former Khmer Rouge leaders have been detained and will face the ECCC, most of them on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

They are: Kaing Guek Eav, the alleged chief torturer of the regime; former Khmer Rouge Prime Minister Khieu Samphan; Ieng Sary, the regime's former foreign minister, and his wife, Ieng Thirith; and Nuon Chea, the top surviving regime leader.

The ECCC, which was established by both the United Nations and Cambodia, became operational in 2006, but the first formal hearings took place in fall of last year.

More than 2 million people died during the party's efforts to transform Cambodia into an agrarian utopia before troops from neighboring Vietnam overthrew the regime. Remnants of the Khmer Rouge continued to battle Cambodia's government into the 1990s before they fragmented in the middle of the decade.

Pol Pot, known as "Brother Number One" during the group's nearly four years in power, died in a jungle hideout in 1998. Ta Mok, the former Khmer Rouge military chief known as "The Butcher," died in a Cambodian military hospital in 2006 while awaiting trial for crimes against humanity.

The tribunal, which includes three Cambodian and two international jurists, is expected to continue until at least 2010.
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