PHNOM PENH—A property developer in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, has ended compensation negotiations after forcefully demolishing the homes of residents.
On Jan. 24, the 7NG Construction company physically expelled 152 families from Dey Krahorm village in Phnom Penh’s Chmakar Mon district and tore down their homes to develop a commercial site consisting of townhouses and office space.
The residents are now homeless and living without basic necessities.
One resident, who did not provide his name, said community members were given no prior warning of the demolition, which began early in the morning.
“There were many authorities, police, and military police standing in front of my house, and they pointed to me and said, ‘There he is! There he is,’” he said.
“They suddenly grabbed me and beat me. They even pulled my seven-months' pregnant wife out and pulled her hair,” he said.
“They beat me until I could not see straight, so I do not remember [who attacked me], but they were in police and military police uniforms,” he said.
“They beat my arm with the butt of a gun and they hit me in the jaw, which is still swollen…They kicked me all over my body until I rolled over, handcuffed me, and then pulled me to the other side of the road,” the man said.
The resident said that in addition to being beaten, he was also robbed during the incident.
“Property was looted. The 7NG Company sent workers wearing yellow, blue, and red shirts carrying new cloth bags to take property and carry it away on their shoulders. Everything has been looted—goods I purchased for stock worth more than 10 million riels (U.S. $2,500)—there is nothing left,” he said.
Most of the Dey Krahorm families had been residents of the village since the early 1980s, which legitimizes their possession rights under Cambodia’s 2001 Land Law.
However, authorities have not officially reinstated property rights for the majority of Cambodia following the Khmer Rouge era, leaving many citizens exposed to arbitrary land-use decisions.
In 2003, the government gave the Dey Krahorm community an “in-situ social land concession,” which under the Land Law protects poor communities’ right to land. Both the Cambodian Constitution and the Land Law state that no one can have their land taken without fair compensation.
More than three years ago, 7NG began negotiations with the residents, offering to build them alternative housing with utilities in Damnak Trayeung village, in Phnom Penh’s outlying Dangkor district.
But since then, the price of land in the area has sharply increased, and the residents who did not accept the initial terms have demanded compensation reflecting current market prices.
The families had been demanding at least U.S. $20,000 each, based on what they said was fair market value.
7NG Construction initially agreed to residents’ demands, but then rescinded the offer and carried out demolition plans.
It has since offered residents U.S. $185 each for their property, in addition to a four-by-12 meter apartment without functioning utilities.
Srey Sothea, the CEO of 7NG, said that residents had been told through a representative to accept the offer of compensation or to expect nothing at all.
“We offered the remaining residents extra compensation and asked them to leave by the specified date to avoid an ugly incident,” Srey said.
“We couldn’t wait any longer—we had to take this [extreme] measure or the situation would get worse,” he said.
More than 1,400 families agreed to relocate to Damnak Trayeung, including as many as 90 following the forced eviction, but a remaining group of about 60 families are now homeless and have received no compensation.
In the eight days following the demolition, the evicted families have been forced to sleep in parks and to seek temporary refuge in the offices of human rights groups and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR.)
Calls go unanswered
On Jan. 27, the residents of Dey Krahorm seeking government help in negotiations held a demonstration across from the Cambodian National Assembly, but were removed that evening by security guards and armed forces.
The following morning, residents presented a petition to the office of Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Council of Ministers, but calls for government assistance went unanswered.
The deputy governor of Phnom Penh, Mann Chhoeun, said negotiations broke down due to the unwarranted demands of the Dey Krahorm residents.
“The negotiation could not find a middle ground…The bargaining terms kept shifting, with some homeowners originally demanding U.S. $10,000, then asking for U.S. $20,000 in exchange for a single dwelling unit,” he said.
Mann Chhoeun acknowledged that the municipality still owed residents some 90 housing units following the initial terms presented by 7NG in 2005.
But he said that as negotiations continued, residents’ claims for units gradually increased to 150.
“The number of families also increased from 51 to 200, and the municipality could not afford to continue the negotiations,” Mann Chhoeun said.
Call for action
The Cambodian Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch in New York condemned the forced demolition, calling for the arrest of the men who beat residents and destroyed their homes.
In a statement, the Cambodian Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said the eviction “runs contrary to the government’s policy of good governance, rule of law, human development, and poverty reduction,” which it said development partners claim to support.
“It is not too late for the municipality, the government and the company to demonstrate that the land law can be upheld and applied to protect the rights of all citizens, regardless of their wealth or social status,” the statement said.
Elaine Pearson, Asia office deputy director for Human Rights Watch in New York, said the Cambodian government should end evictions of residents in land disputes.
“There should be a talk with the community to discuss a resolution first. Last week, in a talk with the authorities, residents said they would agree to demolish their houses and leave the area if they received appropriate compensation for their land,” Pearson said.
“In the meantime, the government should provide the residents emergency aid. They have lost their housing, they lack food and water, and they seriously need long-term aid,” she said.
Confusion over land rights
The land issue dates from the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, which forced large-scale evacuations and relocations throughout the country. This was followed by mass confusion over land rights and the formation of squatter communities when the refugees returned in the 1990s after a decade of civil war.
Housing Cambodia’s large, young, and overwhelmingly poor population has posed a major problem ever since.
Original reporting by Ma Yarith, Pon Bunsong, Ouk Savborey, Hassan Kasem, and Borin Sam for RFA's Khmer service. Khmer service director: Sos Kem. Translated by Oun Chhin and Hassan Kasem. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes.