Government officials yesterday defended their removal of illegal urban settlements and evictions and took aim at their critics while rolling out new official rules on conducting such removals.
A government “circular,” approved by the Council of Ministers and signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen last month, sets out the new rules local authorities must now follow in deciding whether to relocate urban settlements deemed illegal.
“Although it is a minority group of people, the government still pays attention to them,” Land Management Minister Im Chhun Lim said at the workshop to unveil the rules, while also taking issue with those who call their removals of such communities “evictions.”
“This term ‘eviction,’ we cannot accept,” Minister Chhun Lim said. “Evictions only happened during the Pol Pot regime,” he said.
“Now the country is in peace and there is no eviction,” Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Mann Chhoeun agreed.
“Please try not to exaggerate the information. We have done a lot so far.”
Mr Chhun Lim also insisted that the government has always removed illegal settlements “in line with the international standards.”
Non-governmental groups, however, have long claimed that the government regularly violates international and national laws alike when evicting urban poor settlements.
Contacted after the workshop, Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Center, questioned the minister’s claim.
“I do not wish to challenge [the minister]. I prefer to raise the question back, whether the relocation has been against their will?” Mr Virak said.
“Involuntary resettlement means eviction. Did the government do this? Yes.”
“The problem remains, as we can see,” Mr Virak said, offering several examples of involuntary resettlement, including the January 2009 eviction of residents from Phnom Penh’s Dey Krahorm community.
Backed by hundreds of guards and police wielding riot shields and batons and firing tear gas, bulldozers leveled homes in Dey Krahorm of residents who had refused to move.
City officials and rights workers said the violence during the eviction left six police officers injured and two residents hospitalized.
“I don’t believe previous removals have complied with international standards,” said Eang Vuthy, a program officer for the housing rights group Bridged Across Borders Southeast Asia, who attended the workshop and spoke afterwards.
“International law says relocation is the last option and it says it doesn’t make their lives worse,” Mr Vuthy said.
“Before they have a house and when they are removed they don’t have a house, so how can they say it complies” with international standards, he said.
Both NGOs and the UN have also raised concerns with the new circular for leaving out direct reference to existing articles under the country’s 2001 Land Law and related sub-decrees.
“If the government has a good view to implement it, without a negative impact on the legal possessor, then it is good,” Mr Vuthy said. “But based on previous practice, it has impacted the legal possessor. We hope the government implements the circular fairly and not just assume everyone in a settlement is illegal.”
Mr Chhun Lim, the Land Management minister, insisted at the workshop that the government would apply the circular in line with all existing laws and rules.
Under the new rules, local authorities working with community representatives and non-government groups begin by locating and counting the number of “temporary settlements” in each area, take a census of each household in those settlements, and deciding whether the settlements are located on state public land, state private land, or individual land.
For settlements deemed illegal, they will then have to chose one of three options: on-site upgrades of their homes; relocation from sites deemed unfit for upgrades; or, according to the circular in English, “other types of solution policies based on actual situation.”
If government and non-government parties cannot agree on a settlement, the circular requires them to report their disparate views to the Provincial Board of Governors but fails to mention who makes the final call.
At yesterday’s workshop, Beng Hong Socheat Khemro, deputy secretary-general at the Land Management Ministry, said the final decision will rest with the State Land Management Committee.
“We understand that we will not have the full consensus,” he said.
The rules also require that new and existing relocation sites alike be fashioned with basic services such as water and health care services “in advance.”
Toward the end of the workshop, Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema urged officials to commit to the circular.
“The circular is used as the weapon, as the tool, the mechanism. You should not be afraid,” the governor said.
“There’s no city that does not have the poor, therefore we should not be afraid of the solution to this problem.”