Hundreds of police and military police forcibly cleared Phnom Penh’s Dey Krahorm community early Saturday using tear gas, metal batons, shields and a fire-truck hose to bring an end to a nearly three-year land dispute.
Two residents were hospitalized and six police officers were injured because of the forced eviction, according to a rights worker and a City Hall official.
Dey Krahorm residents have been resisting eviction since 2006, when the municipality handed the 3.6 hectares of city-center land over to a private developer, 7NG. Since then, authorities have been working to convince residents of the arts community to clear out so that 7NG can build high-end residential and retail buildings.
Before Saturday, the government said 1,465 families originally lived at the site and 91 remained. Community members and human-rights workers, however, claimed there were closer to 800 original families and that there were about 150 holdout families.
The estimated 500 people who still lived at Dey Krahorm as of last week were among the approximately 150,000 Cambodians known to live at risk of being forcibly evicted, according to Amnesty International.
Now, the community known as Dey Krahorm is completely gone.
Police started blocking off the two streets that lead to Dey Krahorm about 2 am. Hundreds of demolition workers arrived with about 60 flatbed trucks and heavy-duty dump trucks before dawn.
Throughout the night inside Dey Krahorm, residents scrambled to hide their valuables. Some frantically cleared out rice and vegetables from the market. A few prayed and lit incense. Others walked around in motorbike helmets and stuffed their pockets with chunks of concrete.
Two loudspeakers blared warnings: “Protect! Don’t let them in!”
About 6 am, just as the sun lit the overcast sky, hundreds of policemen and demolition workers surrounded the community, entering from the north and south at the same time.
Residents fought back by creating a barricade made up of vendor pushcarts on the south end. They threw rocks and screamed as they swiped at police with sticks.
Stacks of tires were set ablaze, spouting plumes of sour black smoke.
Police retaliated, using shields and batons. They fired tear gas into the crowd and took aim at individuals with fire hoses to clear the way for demolition trucks.
Bulldozers and backhoes razed the houses soon after. Workers, wearing either red, blue or yellow shirts and caps, followed behind with axes and sledgehammers to tear down roofs and walls.
Most residents raced back to their homes to salvage what they could before the machines buried their belongings. But others stood outside wailing, frozen with anger and grief.
“My father served as a national soldier for his whole life. He passed away a few years ago, but I don’t think he served the nation to be left with nothing,” sobbed Phork Nyra, 36, who stood behind what was left of her house Saturday morning. Her family wanted more than $100,000 in compensation to relocate the 17 families that lived on their 146-square-meter lot.
Municipal Deputy Governor Mann Chhoeun had recently lauded the peaceful nature of negotiations with the community, and on Jan 14 appeared to reject the notion of a forced eviction, telling a reporter that, “In this era, we will not use any activities that lead to violence.” But on Sunday he said the recently submitted compensation demands made by the remaining Dey Krahorm residents were simply too high.
“We didn’t want to do this. We tried to find a middle ground. But the middle ground was too far away to reach because one family demands $120,000 in the new list, while their land size is only 52 square meters large,” he said.
The company and municipality had been offering the holdout families housing in the city’s outskirts in Dangkao district or $15,000 in compensation. On Jan 12, authorities upped the offer to $20,000, plus some incentives. Some accepted, but many others wanted more money because of the size of their land and they registered those requests with the municipality on Jan 19.
Yet many residents weren’t eligible for compensation at all, according to the company, because they didn’t have legal titles to their land.
Ty Savoeun, 39, was one such resident. “This is beyond belief. I don’t even have 100 riel because I recently paid for my child’s medical treatment,” he said Saturday.
“This is terrible for my family because we don’t have legal documents for occupying our 18 square meters because local authorities demanded $30 for our family documents,” he said.
None of residents evicted Saturday-whether they have property ownership documents or not-will get any money, Mann Chhoeun said Sunday: “The company says they had their chance and there is no money for compensation. Not $10,000. Not $15,000. Not $20,000.”
Their only choice, Mann Chhoeun said, is to accept the housing in Dangkao district, about 45 minutes outside the center of Phnom Penh, or walk away with nothing.
The company used two backhoe excavators and four bulldozers, he said. And about 300 police forces and about 300 laborers participated in the effort, according to Srey Sothea, an adviser for the 7NG company. The police and workers were paid 60,000 riel-about $15-to participate in the eviction, he said.
Srey Sothea also confirmed the compensation for the remaining Dey Krahorm residents. “The only thing for them is a house. So far, 28 families have accepted houses,” he said.
The Ministry of Land Management and Urban Planning and Construction will “indirectly” assist the residents who don’t have legal documents for their Dey Krahorm land, according to Land Management Minister Im Chhun Lim.
“For the Dey Krahorm situation, I think City Hall used all the possible methods to try to solve the problem. [Forced eviction] was a last resort,” he said Sunday.
The eviction was condemned immediately by human rights organizations: “It is yet another example of the violent evictions taking place across Cambodia which are in danger of destabilizing the country. Today’s eviction was marked by excessive use of force endangering the lives of Dey Krahorm residents, and resulting in over 18 [Dey Krahorm resident] injuries—five of which were serious,” read a statement issued Sunday by the Housing Rights Task Force, a coalition of local and international NGOs.
Two residents were hospitalized as a result of the eviction-one was hit by a bulldozer and another person was hurt when a roof collapsed, according to Depika Sherchan, acting coordinator of the Center on Housing Rights and Evictions.
Six police officers were injured, according to Mann Chhoeun.