CAMBODIA: An "epidemic" of evictions
A man holds his child as he walks through the remains of a community known as Group 78 in central Phnom Penh
PHNOM PENH, 13 October 2009 (IRIN) - About 700 police and soldiers in riot gear arrived early one morning, waking 58-year-old Teth Neang with a baton and forcing her into a truck.
After they bulldozed her home, they drove her to the outskirts of the capital. She alleges they then dumped her - and 1,000 other families - in an open field, and drove off.
That was three years ago. Since then, Neang has lived in a government-sponsored relocation site at Andong, 20km outside Phnom Penh, without healthcare or a job.
The land she was removed from - Sambok Chap village, in central Phnom Penh - remains barely used by a private developer.
"The developer didn't give me a home like they promised," she told IRIN. "I slept in the field for a week, even in the rain."
With the help of a local Christian missionary, Neang has managed to build a tarpaulin hut but her home is regularly flooded and she has no source of clean drinking water.
"How am I supposed to work here? In Phnom Penh we had jobs and ways of living. Out here, nobody takes care of us."
In recent years, NGOs and rights groups have raised concerns over what they say is an epidemic of forced evictions amid spiralling land prices and lax enforcement of laws.
Many evictions make way for hotels and skyscrapers in the rapidly developing capital. In the countryside, evictions are often justified to make way for logging, mining, resorts, casinos or plantations, say NGOs.
Licadho, a Cambodian NGO, said in a May report
that 133,000 people, or 10 percent of Phnom Penh's 1.3 million, were believed to have been affected by evictions since 1990.
And more than 250,000 people in 13 provinces have been hit by land-grabbing and forced evictions since 2003, it said.
Meanwhile, rural landlessness has soared from about 13 percent in 1997 to as high as 25 percent in 2007, according to Bridges across Borders Southeast Asia (BABSEA), a regional NGO that works on land rights in Cambodia.
"The mismanagement of state land has negatively impacted [on] the poorest Cambodians most," said David Pred, director of BABSEA, in a statement on 1 October. "Rural and indigenous communities have been deprived of the land on which their lives depend."
NGOs report that many evictees such as Neang are denied basic healthcare and water services in their relocation sites, provided by the government and usually in areas too far from the inner city to find jobs.
Scores of land documents were destroyed under the Khmer Rouge regime, leaving many Cambodians unable to prove ownership.
The government has justified evictions as part of the country's development plan, and has claimed that residents squat on land illegally. But according to Cambodia's 2001 land law, anyone who has used land for the past five years can claim full title to it.
One World Bank land-titling programme, the Land Management and Administration Project (LMAP), was cancelled by the government in early September. The US$24.3 million project had issued 1.1 million titles since 2002 in an attempt to address Cambodia's rampant landlessness.
Prime Minister Hun Sen said in early September that the move was due to "complicated and difficult conditions" surrounding the project.
However, Annette Dixon, the World Bank's director for Southeast Asia, has said the Bank and government could not agree on a protection mechanism for land disputes.
"The government is making a mistake. The LMAP could be a tremendous boost for poverty reduction, giving people security to their land, which would lead to better planning and investment," Ou Virak, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, a local NGO, told IRIN.
"Land conflict is the one issue that could undermine the current government and cause social unrest," he said.
In perhaps the most controversial case, a politically connected Cambodian developer, Shukaku Inc., is filling in the Boeung Kak lake in northeastern Phnom Penh - one of the city's few natural sites that attracts thousands of tourists each year.
The company has evicted about 900 families from the land since August 2008, and another 20,000 are set to be pushed out, according to BABSEA. Activists say the legality of the project is unclear, since Cambodia's 2001 land law states that lakes are public property and cannot be destroyed.
However, officials have said the land belongs to the state, not families, and that the development is necessary.
"At Boeung Kak lake, we don't evict people because it is state property," Pa Socheat Vong, sub-governor of the Phnom Penh municipality, told IRIN. "We do things according to the law, and we need to build infrastructure and develop Phnom Penh. Foreign NGOs and journalists don't know the truth about it."
As part of the project, Shukaku has entered into a 99-year lease to develop 133ha of the lake and surrounding areas. It reportedly plans to build flats and shopping complexes.