A UN envoy expressed concern Tuesday over the recent rash of development projects around the city that are purported to be aimed at eradicating poverty but have displaced poor villagers and left them worse off than before.
Visiting Cambodia to assess the government’s international obligations on housing rights, Miloon Kothari, special rapporteur on adequate housing and housing rights for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, visited several communities in Phnom Penh that are facing eviction or have already been moved.
“There seems to be a frenzy, a momentum to grab up anything you can,” Kothari said as he surveyed the filled-in lake upon which the new Royal University of Fine Arts is being built in the northwest corner of the city’s outskirts. “In that frenzy, the rights of the people are being forgotten,” he said.
Kothari visited the old and new RUFA campuses, the disputed island Koh Pich and a community of residences built along the outside walls of Preah Monivong Hospital and scheduled for eviction.
As villagers constructed houses on Boeung Payap near the still-to-be-finished RUFA campus, Kothari said one of the overarching problems was that there didn’t appear to be any distinction between private and public land and what should and what should not be sold by the government.
In addition, Kothari said that Phnom Penh Municipality officials have told him that in many instances, the decision to sell land was out of their hands.
“The decisions [to sell public land] seem to be dictated by money and political expediency,” Kothari said.
“The lowest priority is the rights of the people affected,” he continued. “The state has a responsibility to everybody in the city, but the people cannot go to them. That’s a failure of governance.”
Kothari called for the municipal government to be given control of its own land and for the Cambodian government to assume responsibility for the livelihoods of average Cambodians.
An example of those who have not been treated fairly, he said, were the families who had been relocated from the old RUFA campus to the new one.
Situated amid numerous lakes that have recently been filled in and are now being broken into plots for sale, the new RUFA campus stood half-finished in Russei Keo district on Tuesday.
Staff and their families who were moved to the new site in return for vacating the old campus were erecting houses nearby. A sign reading “No water, no electricity, no jobs” had been erected in front of one home.
“We were cheated because we were promised water and electricity [if we moved here],” said Seng Chamroeun, the wife of a RUFA teacher, adding she could no longer work at a market in Phnom Penh because it was too far away.
Another man, who worked in the university’s administration but asked not to be named, said villagers didn’t know what to call the new village. “We might take the name of the lake it’s built on,” he said.
“They are suddenly the responsibility of no one,” Kothari said, explaining that the government has told the people to deal with RUFA developer Mong Reththy who is developing the old campus site and moved the people to the new location.
“At this stage, if you have injustice being done, and it’s happening on a large scale as we’ve seen, there is no recourse [for the villagers],” Kothari added.
At the former RUFA campus near the Old Stadium, the seven families that remain on the site had posted placards demanding fair treatment and pictures of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Only three houses remained standing while the rest of the campus was littered with rubble.
Two armed RCAF soldiers guarded several dump trucks and excavators working nearby on Tuesday.
Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
RUFA site developer Mong Reththy said he had offered the villagers more than fair compensation for their land.
“What more do they want?” he asked. “You can’t demand what you want because…I cannot print the money. I am also conducting a business.”
Earlier in the day, Kothari visited Koh Pich, the island across from NagaCorp Casino where businesses and municipal officials are in a standoff with about 20 families who are refusing their offer of compensation to leave their land.
Kothari met with the villagers who said they have no choice but to fight for fair compensation.
One woman, who asked not to be identified, told Kothari that the remaining families want small plots of land on the island to live on and would sell the remainder for $26 per square meter.
“What’s paramount is the right to stay here,” the woman said. “The government talks about compensation, but it’s a joke,” she said. “It is very small. Is this for the public interest or just the rich people’s interest?”
The remaining villagers said they have land titles and good legal cases but they don’t trust the courts because they can be influenced by high-ranking officials.
Kothari said based upon what he had been told, he didn’t believe the government could kick the remaining islanders of their land without compensation.
“I don’t see what law could be used to dispossess you from your homes,” he told the villagers.
In the afternoon, Kothari visited residents ordered by the Interior Ministry to leave their homes located alongside the state-run Preah Monivong Hospital.
The residents said they haven’t seen any plans for the hospital site’s development.
Instead, they believe it will be sold to private developers.
“We just want to live on this land because it is near the market and school,” said Chuon Nhim, who has been living in the community and working at the hospital as a cook since 1988.
Villagers—many of whom work at the hospital—have submitted a plan to develop the area on their own and are in negotiations with the Interior Ministry, with the municipality acting as a go-between.
“If they want us to live far away, we will not go,” villager Nguon Phann said.
“I am worried about the eviction. But what is the offer and is there compensation?”
Kothari told the villagers he would raise their concerns with government officials and private developers when he meets with them next week.
Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Mann Chhoeun said City Hall’s master plan for the next 15 years will be presented to Kothari next week, which he hoped would explain the reasoning for some of the government’s actions.
“We will share some ideas and exchange ideas with him,” the deputy governor said.
The municipality is also continuing negotiations with the residents of Koh Pich and Preah Monivong, Mann Chhoeun said. “We try our best to find the middle way,” he said. “We are trying to develop the city with the concept of public participation.”
Mann Chhoeun said the municipal government is preparing a report showing how recent development will help eradicate poverty in the city, which falls in line with the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.
“The main purpose [of the land development] is to eradicate poverty,” which can happen, Mann Chhoeun added, “if the people participate closely with us.”