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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Land grabs in Cambodia push poor out

Bill Schiller
Asia Bureau

PHNOM PENH–When military police sealed off the ramshackle, inner-city neighbourhood of Dey Krahorm at 2 a.m. one day last month – preparing to forcibly remove its remaining residents to make way for a plush, new commercial development – Lee Robinson, of Victoria, B.C., was inside.

"We knew there was going to be trouble," says Robinson, who runs a small non-governmental organization here called Licadho Canada.

Robinson and a handful of other Canadians, Americans and Germans had come to show their support for the people of Dey Krahorm, many of whom had been fighting for years to cling to what they believed was their rightful property.

Robinson and her foreign colleagues are part of a small but vocal throng of international youth that has converged on Cambodia, to press international donors and their governments to call Cambodia's government to account over its continued seizure of neighbourhoods populated by the poor and to press for civil rights.

But that day last month, they could do little when the neighbourhood of Dey Krahorm was laid to waste by the developer, with the backing of military police, the riot squad, and a band of about 100 "hired hands" clutching crowbars and clubs.

When the sun finally rose over Phnom Penh, the developer's group pushed its way through barricades of wood, metal and vendors' carts mounted by residents, and cleared a path for a massive steam shovel that swung its arm like a baseball bat, crushing every structure in its path.
Tear gas boomed, fires erupted and people were dragged screaming from their homes. Police endured a rain of rocks in retaliation.

"Everything kind of went into a war zone," Robinson recalls. "It was chaos."

By noon it was over. Dey Krahorm, a neighbourhood that began in the mid-1980s and was once home to musicians, actors, comedians and even a few civil servants, was no more.

The defeated were trucked off to a resettlement site some 20 kilometres outside the city, and once again, the development of Cambodia's capital marched on.

International human rights groups here say this is happening with increasing frequency across one of the world's poorest countries.

As international aid floods into Cambodia – aimed at reducing poverty and helping to build infrastructure – the rich elite are growing ever more powerful, while the poor are getting pushed aside.

"Cambodia is basically up for sale," says David Pred, one of the founders of Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia, a spinoff of a U.S.-based human rights organization.

"It's being parcelled up and sold to the highest bidder."

He says it's time the international community called a halt to it. And it's in a position to do so, he adds.

"International donors provide half of this government's national budget," he notes. "It's time they demanded accountability."

Pred and a growing number of non-governmental organizations and human rights defenders say aid to the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen should be made conditional on its respect for law and human rights.

Once counted among the Dey Krahorm community's staunchest defenders was former Canadian ambassador to Phnom Penh, Donica Pottie.

"People here still remember her," says Naly Pilorge, a French, Canadian and Khmer national who heads Cambodia's largest human rights organization, The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights. "She stood up for the people of Dey Krahorm and for the poor."

While here, Pottie worked to free jailed human rights defenders and pressed the government to end forced removals and halt widespread land expropriation.

But Pottie returned to Ottawa in 2007 and Canada's mission here was downgraded from full-fledged embassy status following cutbacks from Ottawa.

This month, British-based environmental watchdog Global Witness issued a stinging report detailing what it alleges is the parcelling out of the nation's oil, gas and mineral reserves mainly to the family, friends and trusted associates of the government of Hun Sen.

Opposition parties here immediately seized on the report to demand an accounting from the government. But following national elections in July last year, in which Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party took 91 of 123 seats – elections that were criticized by the European Union and the United Nation's Special Representative for Human Rights as seriously flawed – the opposition is weak.

The government has promised to look into the matter, but with no stated timetable.

Meanwhile, as Cambodia's rich elite get richer, the nation continues to do without.

Cambodia has no national electricity grid.

Its highways are in a shambles.

And more than 60 per cent of Cambodians have no access to clean water.

The land on which Dey Krahorm once stood – the words mean "Red Soil" – was actually granted to the community by the government as a so-called Social Land Concession in 2003, one of several under a plan announced by Hun Sen himself to provide secure land tenure and on-site upgrading for Phnom Penh's poor.

But, as is so often the case in the developing world, the developer persuaded a tiny band of community leaders to affix their thumbprints to documents, turning over the entire parcel for their own lucrative private gain and a remote relocation outside the city. The deal was done without any consultation with the Dey Krahorm residents.

Some gave in. But a rump group of more than 150 families took a stand. They fired the leaders, elected their own and refused to move. Some 250 small retailers and renters stayed with them.

"In our view it (the land grab) was completely illegal," says German lawyer Manfred Hornung, who works for Pilorge's human rights organization and is now defending the leaders of the remaining residents who have been taken to court by the developers.

He warns, too, that forced removals like Dey Krahorm come with significant social costs, costs that may simmer now – and come to a boil later.

"Resettling people so far outside the city disrupts families, forces people to abandon jobs and takes children out of school."

And it's part of a pattern in recent years, he notes.

The forced removal of other Phnom Penh neighbourhoods like Sambok Chap, Mitheapheap and Russy Keo have all forced the poor from the city. And yet another target is Boeung Kak – a lake in the city's north end that developers plan to backfill and build on, pushing as many as 4,000 families in the surrounding area out of the city.

The plans for Boeung Kak constitute a social and environmental disaster in the making, says Pred of Bridges Across Borders.

"International aid is supposed to be about poverty reduction. But this epidemic of land theft is undermining the international community's best efforts.

"We're absolutely not anti-development," he says.

"But what we're seeing here is exclusive development for the super-rich, while the poor get pushed ever deeper into poverty. It's creating conditions for instability."

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Taste Buds: Kirirom Cambodian

A.V. Crofts

In the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, bakeries and noodle shops typically open for business at the crack of dawn to beat the sting of midday heat. In the early 1970s, Meng Ung’s father, a second-generation Chinese-Cambodian, owned such a bakery in Phnom Penh, where wholesalers would arrive early to purchase loaves of fresh bread followed later in the morning by local Cambodians in search of their breakfast. Today, an ocean and lifetime away in Lynnwood, Ung sits at a polished table in his spotless family bakery and restaurant that shares the name of his father’s original store: Kirirom.

As a Chinese-Cambodian, Ung has a rich appreciation for the ethnic blend in Cambodia that informs their cuisine – from the French colonial presence of the 19th and 20th centuries to Cambodia’s geographic position sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam. “Phnom Penh is a melting pot,” Ung explains. “You have Chinese influence, you have the French. Cambodian food shares lots of spices with Thai and Lao cooking – we are like brothers.”

Kirirom’s menu reflects the kaleidoscope of cultures that influence contemporary Cambodian cuisine: French baguettes accompany rich noodle soups infused with lemongrass. Chinese donuts and humbao sit side-by-side with flaky apple and cherry turnovers in the bakery display cases. Fried rice, curries and satays all make multiple menu appearances. “Each family has a different cooking style,” says Ung. “Kirirom’s food is how I cook at my house.” Eating at Kirirom provides an education in early food fusion, made visible for the multicultural nature of Ung’s tri-lingual (Khmer, Chinese, and French) household growing up.

The first lesson involves navigating Kirirom’s extensive menu, laid out beautifully with color photographs of each dish and detailed ingredient descriptions. Starting with appetizers that range from the Kirirom Egg Rolls ($4.50 for six) to the Grilled Short Rib Lemongrass ($4.50 for three skewers), the effect is a welcome collection of many Southeast Asian favorites. My personal favorite is the Wrapped Shrimp ($5.25 for seven), a creative starter that presents crispy wanton-wrapped shrimp piping hot with a sweet chili dipping sauce. While some establishments overdo the oil on frying, Kirirom hits the mark on the shrimp without a hint of grease.

With such attractive photographs to pore over and more than 80 options to suit every taste, deciding on entrées was truly challenging. No sooner had my eyes landed on a simply gorgeous soup in both presentation and description, then a rice dish or one of the 14 Cambodian sandwiches (“Cambodians love sandwiches!”) Kirirom creates for hungry customers would pull them to their corner of the menu. Ultimately, curiosity often won out and I was duly rewarded.

The Phnom Penh Sour Soup ($7.65) arrives at your table with a nest of coarsely chopped basil and ground peanuts atop a savory broth, with delicate sections of pickled lotus root the thickness of a pencil swimming with fresh pineapple chunks, sectioned tomatoes, shrimp and egg. The pleasing pucker of the lemongrass broth and pickled lotus is complemented by the high-note sweetness of the fresh pineapple. While not as memorable as the sour soup, the Phnom Penh Noodle Soup ($4.95) starts with a delicious pork broth and is served with thin rice noodles, cilantro, green onions, bean sprouts, ground and sliced pork, wafer-thin slices of chicken loaf, fish balls and a pinch of pickled vegetables on the top.

A standout entrée is the XO Fried Rice with Chicken ($8.25) an addictive dish that combines specially marinated chicken, broccoli florettes, Chinese broccoli and celery coins, egg and juicy shiitake mushrooms. The chicken and shiitake mushrooms make the dish by far one of the best versions of a fried rice entrée my taste buds can remember. The rice is also served with a simple but satisfying pork broth soup and hot sauce.

Kirirom baguettes ($.70 for small and $1.60 for a large) enhance any meal and are baked fresh daily. “We don’t use any preservatives,” Ung says. “The shelf life of our bread is only two days.” Chinese donuts ($.65 each) are also excellent options for dunking into rich broths or sopping up one of the many homemade sauces Ung and his family create in the kitchen. Do not think sweet when it comes to Chinese donuts; these babies are a savory puff pastry that adjusts perfectly for either a swim in your soup or a plunge into your sweetened hot cup of coffee for dessert.

Along with a range of beers and soft drinks, Kirirom boasts a wonderful fresh coconut drink ($2.50), which is happily served in a hefty pint glass with a spoon, to better scoop the generous curls of coconut meat and sinfully sweet juice. Another libation of unusual variety is Kirirom’s soybean drink ($1.25), a canned sweet soy juice that has a wonderfully milky quality reminiscent of horchata and my taco trawling days. These drinks easily qualify as desserts, but if you still feel the need to indulge, Kirirom has an array of baked confections made fresh daily.

While Kirirom recently celebrated its first birthday this past March, its story really begins back in Phnom Penh at the original Kirirom, which Ung and his eight siblings and parents were forced to abandon in 1975 during the rise of the Khmer Rouge, the brutal political regime responsible for over 1 million Cambodian deaths over the course of its brutal reign from 1975-’79. The Khmer Rouge emptied Cambodian cities of its residents, forcing families like Ung’s to relocate to the countryside. Ung was only 9 at the time.

After miraculously avoiding the fate of many of his urban counterparts, Ung fled ravaged Cambodia at the age of 15 into Thailand. He spent three years in refugee camps, first in Thailand and then on an Indonesian island, arriving in Seattle through sponsorship by an aunt and uncle in 1984. Ung was part of the first wave of roughly 3,000 Cambodians to arrive in Washington state in the 1980s. Now Cambodians in the state number over 10,000. Ung has experienced some unexpected reunions since opening Kirirom, with old Cambodian friends from grade school appearing at the restaurant and discovering their shared history.

All but two of Ung’s siblings have since joined him in Lynnwood (one sister is in Sydney, Australia; another sister remains in Cambodia) and his three brothers cook at Kirirom with one sister, the eternally cheerful Davy Chea, whose smile greets each customer upon entry. Davy is so quick that she is able to reach your table, menus in hand, before you do. And Ung, the man behind it all? You’ll catch Ung at Kirirom on weekends; during the week he’s at his desk as a technical designer job at Boeing.

But perhaps the most influential presence at Kirirom is Ung’s father, who relocated with his wife to Lynnwood in 1995. “My father wants to make sure that our bread carries the same formula that we had back home,” Ung shares with me in his soft voice as I survey the restaurant, elegant in its simplicity. He grins and continues, “I want to be known for carrying on the tradition of Cambodian food.”

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Cambodia's empty dock

International justice is a farce while those in the west who sided with Pol Pot's murders escape trial

Jhon Pilger

At my hotel in Phnom Penh, the women and children sat on one side of the room, palais-style, the men on the other. It was a disco night and a lot of fun; then suddenly people walked to the windows and wept. The DJ had played a song by the much-loved Khmer singer Sin Sisamouth, who had been forced to dig his own grave and to sing the Khmer Rouge anthem before he was beaten to death. I experienced many such reminders.

There was another kind of reminder. In the village of Neak Long I walked with a distraught man through a necklace of bomb craters. His entire family of 13 had been blown to pieces by an American B-52. That had happened almost two years before Pol Pot came to power in 1975. It is estimated more than 600,000 Cambodians were slaughtered that way.

The problem with the UN-backed trial of the remaining Khmer Rouge leaders, which has just begun in Phnom Penh, is that it is dealing only with the killers of Sin Sisamouth and not with the killers of the family in Neak Long, and not with their collaborators. There were three stages of Cambodia's holocaust. Pol Pot's genocide was but one of them, yet only it has a place in the official memory.

It is highly unlikely Pot Pot would have come to power had President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, not attacked neutral Cambodia. In 1973, B-52s dropped more bombs on Cambodia's heartland than were dropped on Japan during the second world war: equivalent to five Hiroshimas. Files reveal that the CIA was in little doubt of the effect. "[The Khmer Rouge] are using damage caused by B-52 strikes as the main theme of their propaganda," reported the director of operations on May 2, 1973. "This approach has resulted in the successful recruitment of a number of young men [and] has been effective with refugees."

Prior to the bombing, the Khmer Rouge had been a Maoist cult without a popular base. The bombing delivered a catalyst. What Nixon and Kissinger began, Pol Pot completed. Kissinger will not be in the dock in Phnom Penh. He is advising President Obama on geopolitics. Neither will Margaret Thatcher, nor a number of her retired ministers and officials who, in secretly supporting the Khmer Rouge after the Vietnamese had expelled them, contributed directly to the third stage of Cambodia's holocaust.

In 1979, the US and Britain imposed a devastating embargo on stricken Cambodia because its liberators, Vietnam, had come from the wrong side of the cold war. Few Foreign Office campaigns have been as cynical or as brutal. The British demanded that the now defunct Pol Pot regime retain the "right" to represent its victims at the UN and voted with Pol Pot in the agencies of the UN, including the World Health Organisation, thereby preventing it from working in Cambodia. To disguise this outrage, Britain, the US and China, Pol Pot's main backer, invented a "non communist" coalition in exile that was, in fact, dominated by the Khmer Rouge. In Thailand, the CIA and Defence Intelligence Agency formed direct links with the Khmer Rouge.

In 1983, the Thatcher government sent the SAS to train the "coalition" in landmine technology - in a country more seeded with mines than anywhere except Afghanistan. "I confirm," Thatcher wrote to opposition leader Neil Kinnock, "that there is no British government involvement of any kind in training, equipping or co-operating with Khmer Rouge forces or those allied to them." The lie was breathtaking. In 1991, the Major government was forced to admit to parliament that the SAS had been secretly training the "coalition".

Unless international justice is a farce, those who sided with Pol Pot's mass murderers ought to be summoned to the court in Phnom Penh: at the very least their names read into infamy's register.

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