Only hours after 53 families from Phnom Penh’s Group 78 community accepted $8,000 in compensation, armed police took up positions early Friday morning as municipal workers in red T-shirts continued to dismantle the community’s homes.
Although Friday’s eviction went ahead peacefully, the reaction to the ouster of Group 78 residents coming from donor countries, human rights groups and international organizations alike has been highly critical.
“We regret that residents of Group 78 had to leave their settlement before their claims to land ownership had been adequately determined,” the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a statement Friday, adding that development interests in Cambodia are trumping “due process” and “land rights” in the country.
The OHCHR statement stands in stark contrast to City Hall’s claims that the eviction process has been carried out under voluntary terms.
“The relocation was not voluntary, as families left under duress and were presented with no other option but to accept inadequate compensation,” the statement read.
Brittis Edman, a researcher for Amnesty International in Cambodia, wrote in an e-mail Friday: “The need for an end to forced evictions is urgent, so that no more Cambodians have to go to through the traumatic experience of losing their homes.”
“During the three-year long battle for Group 78, the Cambodian authorities, including the Municipality, followed none of the safeguards required under international law, and that makes what happened on Thursday and Friday a ‘forced eviction,’” she added.
Mrs Edman also said that the Municipality made no attempts to properly consult with the affected community, often forbidding residents from speaking in meetings.
“This makes a mockery of the government’s obligations to protect the right to housing,” she said.
On Thursday, the World Bank issued a statement cosigned by the European Commission, the Asian Development Bank, the UN and the embassies of Australia, the US, UK, Denmark, Bulgaria and Germany calling on the government to stop forced evictions until a transparent mechanism for solving land disputes is put in place.
The statement said that “urban dwellers are under threat of being moved to make way for high value property development,” putting at risk the livelihoods of thousands of poor people living in disputed urban areas.
Officials at the US, Australian, Danish and Swedish Embassies said Friday that they had nothing more to add to the statement and officials at the UK and German Embassy could not be reached for comment.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap expressed gratitude for the concerns coming from the international community, but said such evictions are necessary for development.
“The eviction is the effect from development and is not the government’s intention,” he said. “Before the government decided to do this, it considered it very seriously.”
He added that in the long term the eviction of Group 78 would benefit the Cambodian people as a whole, leading to a better environment and higher levels of sanitation.
Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Mann Chhoeun said he thought that those who had been evicted were happy with the way things turned out and praised them for their peaceful attitude during the eviction.
“The solution of City Hall brought great care to the people. While the economic crisis is still in place, those people still received money,” he said, adding that the dismantling of their homes was done carefully and “with love.”
Mr Chhoeun said that the heightened levels of criticism coming from NGOs and development partners are “completely biased.”
“They do not really love Khmers like Khmer people do,” he said.
But in a joint statement released Friday by local NGOs the Housing Rights Task Force, Community Legal Education Center, Licadho, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, and the Center on Housing Rights and Evictions, Licadho Director Naly Pilorge said that Friday’s eviction was “yet another black day for land rights in Cambodia.”
“Once more, some of Phnom Penh’s poorest and most vulnerable residents have been forced off their land in return for grossly inadequate compensation,” she said.
And for Chan Vichet, a former resident of Phnom Penh’s evicted Dey Krahorm community, who saw his house destroyed in January and was present at the Group 78 eviction, “love” is not a word he chose to describe Friday’s events.
“Whenever I see people crying after losing their home, I have a lump in my throat,” he said as broken pieces of iron and wood were loaded up into trucks nearby.
“I loved my house. I had lived in it for ten years and it was made of good quality wood,” said Bun Kich, 60, a former resident of the Group 78 community whose house was flattened Friday morning with sledgehammers.
According to local rights organizations, six of the seven remaining families who had not agreed to Phnom Penh City Hall’s original offer had received $20,000 in compensation Friday morning, while one family who refused to accept the compensation had their home destroyed by the authorities anyway.
(Additional reporting by Phann Ana)