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Saturday, August 29, 2009

RIGHTS-CAMBODIA: Mass Evictions May Follow Lake Grab

By Andrew Nette


PHNOM PENH, Aug 29 (IPS) - A plan to redevelop Phnom Penh’s largest remaining natural lake into a residential and shopping precinct has ignited a storm of protests and claims that it could result in the largest eviction in Cambodia’s post-war history.

Local and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) fear the redevelopment of Boeung Kak lake could be the precursor of a fresh round of evictions across the country and renewed pressure on communities involved in existing land disputes.

The commencement of the project comes ahead of a Sep.10 meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) which will debate whether or not to extend the three-year mandate of Yash Ghai, the Special U.N. Representative for Human Rights in Cambodia.

NGOs plan to raise the Boeung Kak project at the meeting as evidence of the continuing problem of forced evictions in Cambodia.

Rumours about the lake’s redevelopment, circulating for more than a decade, were confirmed in February 2007 when Phnom Penh Municipality signed a 79 million US dollar, 99-year lease on the site with a company called Shukaku Inc.

Although little known, Shukaku Inc has been linked in the Cambodian press to Pheapimex, a giant land company owned by ruling party senator Lau Meng Khin.

Amid a heavy police presence, contractors began pumping sand into the lake on Aug. 26 in preparation for the development of a 133-hectare commercial and housing project.

According to Housing Rights Taskforce, a coalition of more than 20 local and international housing rights organisations, residents have been told the pumping will continue 18 hours a day until 80 hectares of the 90-hectare lake are filled.

Boeung Kak residents claim they were not notified about the work and have received few details about the project and what will happen to those affected.

Chou Ngy, lawyer for the residents, told an Aug. 27 press conference that the project breaches several Cambodian laws.

These include the failure to publicly release an environmental impact assessment and the lack of a bidding procedure preceding the agreement.

He said residents are currently preparing to file an injunction to prevent it going ahead.

"According to the 2001 Land Law, the lake itself should be inalienable state land, so its ownership cannot be transferred for longer than 15 years, during which time the function (of the property) must not change," said a joint statement released this week by the Centre for Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) and Amnesty International (AI).

"Many of the families have strong legal claims to the land under the Land Law," it said.

Municipal authorities say around 600 families will be affected, but NGOs put the number at approximately 4,250 or roughly 30,000 people.

Local media has reported that residents have been given three choices by the municipality; they can move to government approved accommodation in the north east corner of the city which NGOs say is not yet completed, take an 8,500-dollar lump sum in compensation, or wait until alternative housing has been built around the new Boeung Kak lakeshore.

The market rate for land is up to 6,000 dollars per sq m. Under the terms of their lease, Shukaku is paying approximately 50 cents per sq m per year.

"We are very concerned what will happen to our houses and livelihoods and the possibility that we will have to move," Som Vanna, one of the affected Boeung Kak residents, told the Aug. 27 press conference.

"We ask the company to halt the process of filling in the lake and meet the community to discuss the issue."

Touch Sophany moved to Boeung Kak in 1979 and makes a living growing vegetables such as morning glory around the lake. "I think I speak for all families when I say the Boeung Kak lake area is very easy to live in," she said. "Even poor people can make a living catching snails in the lake. The water is polluted, but this is being used as an excuse to force people out in the name of development."

"I want to stress the compensation offer is not acceptable to the people," said Sophany. "They should pay us the market rate."

International NGOs have criticised the planned development.

"If the government wishes to develop Boeung Kak, they should do so through a legal process, with the participation of communities that live around the lake," said Dan Nicholson, Phnom Penh-based Asia Coordinator, COHRE.

Concerns are also being expressed about the potential environmental impact of filling in the lake, which NGOs maintain is a natural reservoir for excess rainwater during the monsoon season.

Officials from the ministry of water resources and meteorology disagree and have told the local media it is not a flood protection area. An environmental impact assessment conducted by the Phnom Penh Municipality also supported the decision to fill in the lake.

Land grabbing and forced evictions are a major issue in Cambodia,

Cambodia’s media is littered with stories of large-scale real estate and infrastructure projects, many of them involving the allocation of significant areas of land, often as concessions.

Two significant development projects have been revealed in the last month alone.

These are the development of an island the size of Hong Kong off the coast of the southern province of Sihanoukville and a two-billion-dollar residential project in the former French colonial resort of Kep.

Housing organisations are concerned about the rights of people in those areas given Cambodia’s recent history of forced, sometimes violent, evictions, many clearly illegal under the country’s laws, which occur without proper consultation or compensation.

So serious was the outcry about the issue that in the months leading up to the Jul. 27 election Prime Minister Hun Sen personally intervened in one dispute and threatened to dissolve the National Authority for the Resolution of Land Disputes, seen by many as a lame duck for its lack of activity.

After a pre-election lull in evictions, there are fears that communities currently embroiled in land disputes will be under renewed pressure and that there will be a spate of new evictions.

"There is an expectation that a lot more evictions will happen and that evictions in the works for some time will now get the green light," said David Pred from the NGO Bridges Across Borders, which operates a school in the Boeung Kak area.

"We are concerned that a number of evictions could be carried out after the election and we call on the government to respect the laws of Cambodia and their international human rights obligations," said Nicholson.

Housing rights organisations aim to make Boeung Kak a major issue at the Sep. 10 UNHRC meeting.

The meeting will consider whether to extend the mandate of the current special representative for human rights in Cambodia and as such will look at the country’s human rights record.

COHRE, AI and Human Rights Watch are all expected to make presentations about the human rights situation, said Nicholson. "There is no doubt that Boeung Kak and other evictions [in Cambodia] will be on the agenda,’’ he said.
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Khmer Rouge trial enthrals Cambodian public

Robert Carmichael/IPS - On Aug. 17 it was the turn of French national Martine Lefeuvre, who was married to Cambodian diplomat Ouk Keth, to testify.

At the invitation of the Khmer Rouge government, Ouk Keth returned to Phnom Penh in 1977 to help rebuild the nation, but was immediately arrested, tortured for six months and then killed at the infamous Tuol Sleng, otherwise known as S-21, prison that Duch (pronounced Doik) ran.

Duch is the first senior Khmer Rouge cadre to be tried in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, or the Khmer Rouge tribunal, which is backed by the United Nations (UN). He faces a life sentence on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes, as well as homicide and torture.

Her husband’s fate unknown to her, Lefeuvre told the court how she searched for several years for news of her missing husband. In 1980 a family friend in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border told her he had seen Ouk Keth’s name on a list of people murdered at S-21, a former high school that the Khmer Rouge converted into a prison in 1975. Ouk Keth was one of more than 15,000 thought to have been tortured and executed in the Tuol Sleng (which means ‘Hill of the Poisonous Tree’) facility under Duch’s command.

Lefeuvre returned to France and her two young children.

"I had to tell my children that they must grow up without their daddy," she said breaking down. "My son, who was seven, and my daughter, who was four and a half, asked me every day: ‘Have you seen Daddy? Will we see Daddy again?’ I had to tell them, no, they will never see their daddy again."

Much of the testimony from the tribunal is harrowing, and the experiences of many Cambodians explain why many do not talk about what happened under the Khmer Rouge regime that ruled the country between 1975 and 1979. Around two million people are thought to have died under one of the most brutal regimes in recent history.

But telling Cambodians about those terrible years is a key part of the remit of the joint U.N.-Cambodian tribunal, said Reach Sambath, the head of the tribunal’s public affairs office.

That is a challenge here, where around 85 percent of people live in rural areas, and illiteracy is widespread.

For that reason, the court endorses a number of methods of informing the public, Reach Sambath said. One method that his office runs, for example, is to bus in people from across the country to watch proceedings in the 500- seat auditorium. By mid-August more than 17,000 Cambodians from across the country had attended the trial, he said.

The public affairs office, which operates with limited resources, also produces material that is distributed online and by hand at the court itself. But measured in sheer numbers, the most successful way of letting Cambodians know about the proceedings and workings of the tribunal is through the use of television and radio.

The tribunal’s daily proceedings are broadcast live on national television every day. But many people do not have the time to spend four days a week following events, which is where a surprisingly successful television show has come in.

The weekly half-hour TV show, which is mainly funded by the British Embassy, is entirely independent of the tribunal’s public affairs office. It is broadcast by national broadcaster Cambodia Television Network in its prime lunchtime slot on Mondays and repeated the following day.

The show’s producer, Matthew Robinson of independent production company Khmer Mekong Films, said between two and three million people watch it each week – a sizeable proportion of the South-east Asian country’s 15 million population.

The format is straightforward enough. Robinson, an experienced British producer and director who lives in Phnom Penh, says that two presenters and a guest examine the events of the previous week.

Co-presenter Neth Pheaktra said the purpose of the show is to provide a concise summary of Duch’s trial, which began on February 17.

"During the 24 minutes of the programme we have the summary, the diary of the Duch trial, and the key points that the witness, the defendant and the judges reveal in the court," Neth Pheaktra said.

According to Robinson a key challenge when devising the format was to create a show that was relatively simple to make but that would appeal to the target audience of mainly rural and often poorly educated Cambodians.

"Then (we mould) them all together in a fairly fast-moving way in language that our audience could understand and be interested in," he explained, "so that over a short period, you have seen the most important things in the proceedings that week."

Ung Chan Sophea, the other presenter, said the show’s writers ensure that the scripted wording is as simple as possible, even when trying to convey the complicated legal jargon that characterises legal proceedings.

That is something the live feed, understandably, cannot do.

At a small coffee shop in Phnom Penh, Mao Sophea said he loves the analysis the show provides of the week’s proceedings.

"For me this is a good show, and the presenters are excellent too," he said. "But to tell you the truth, I haven’t heard too many people talking about it – most of the people I know prefer to watch the all-day broadcasts."

And not everyone is a convert. Lah Yum, seated at another table, hardly watches it "because I am normally asleep during lunchtime when this show is broadcast."

But some of Lah Yum’s friends do watch it, and as the trial of Duch heads towards its conclusion, they are interested in more than just the proceedings. They want to see what the process and the verdict will mean to those who lost loved ones under the Khmer Rouge regime:

"What they are waiting to see is how the trial will manage to deliver justice for the families of the victims," he said.

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