Local authorities are deleting names from a list of families who were, by government order, granted parcels of land originally marked for development in Cambodia’s capital, according to residents who are once again facing eviction from the area.
More than 30 villagers from Phnom Penh’s central Boeung Kak Lake district protested Thursday as a Chinese-Cambodian company owned by a politician from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party buried their homes in sand to build a luxury residential area.
Last month, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan confirmed that Prime Minister Hun Sen would reserve 12.44 hectares (31 acres) of land at Boeung Kak Lake for more than 700 families who were facing eviction to develop themselves.
But villagers said that the implementation of the decree had lacked transparency, allowing local authorities and the developer, Shukaku Inc., to grab parcels at will.
“There are about 65 families that have not been given land because the sub-decree was not transparent,” said one villager, who asked to remain anonymous.
“The municipal government didn’t provide enough details to Hun Sen, and the authorities have taken some the plots of land from the villagers,” he said, adding that officials were “taking names off of the list” of families who had been granted plots.
Another villager said residents could also do nothing to stop Shukaku from developing the land that they were granted in August because local authorities refused to protect their property claims.
“The company refused to resolve the land issue,” said the villager. “This is a violation of human rights and the right to shelter.”
Another villager could only watch as her home was destroyed by the sand dredging.
“I’ve lost everything—everything I have earned in my lifetime,” she said.
Seven families say their homes, many perched on stilts above the water of Boeung Kak Lake, have been destroyed by the sand pumping since Hun Sen ordered local authorities to hand over legal land titles to remaining residents. A total of 17 families have been forced from their homes since then.
Nearly 3,000 families had been evicted before the order to set aside land went into effect, as many residents were forced to accept what they considered inadequate compensation from the government.
Hun Sen’s decision to earmark property for the remaining families came a week after an announcement by the World Bank that it would halt new loans to Cambodia until the land dispute was resolved.
But Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan told RFA at the time that the decision was not a result of pressure from the World Bank, adding that it was “the government’s stance” on the issue.
Boeung Kak villagers welcomed the government’s decision, but expressed concern that corruption and mismanagement by local authorities might leave residents landless in the end.
They said the central government would be less motivated to follow through on implementation because it had simply cut a deal with the villagers to restart funding from the World Bank.
In March, an independent inspection panel found that the World Bank had mishandled a land titling program that led to the eviction of residents from the lake district over the past two years.
Following the panel’s findings, the bank offered to help the government find a solution for the residents, but it also warned that it would reconsider its work in the country if the forced relocations were not halted.
The families who remained at Boeung Kak Lake had held frequent protests in recent months, saying they were holding out for property on the same site after the construction is complete, or for greater compensation.
They say they are entitled to the property under Cambodia’s Land Law, though few of them possess titles, because they have lived there for decades.
Police and company workers had threatened and harassed the residents in attempts to prevent them from holding meetings and from peacefully protesting against the forced eviction.
Police had also used excessive force against some residents when they gathered to bring the issue to the attention of visiting dignitaries and Cambodian politicians, rights groups said.
Cambodia’s 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.
An estimated 30,000 people a year in Cambodia are driven from farmland or urban areas to make way for real estate developments or mining and agricultural projects.
Reported and translated by Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.