Wrong Side of the Tracks

Railroad Project Would Displace 5,000 Families in Poipet Province

poipet, Banteay Meanchey – After living in a Thai refugee camp for 20 years, Lou Chhak finally feels like she has a home.

Though she acknowledges that the life she has been living here for the last five years is not great, things are better in Poipet than in Pursat province where she was sent after she left the refugee camp in the early 1990s.

On good days, she makes about $2 a day carrying goods across the Thai border. Her four children, ranging from age 10 to 16, also earn some money.

“We don’t know what to do if they remove us from here,” said 48-year-old Lou Chhak, whose 14-year-old son was the first of at least 24 residents to die in a cholera epidemic in Poipet last year. “I guess we will go somewhere else, even if we do it illegally because we have no choice. All the land here belongs to powerful people.”

But Lou Chhak may again soon be without a home. Her family is one of about 5,000 the government wants to move soon to make way for a 48-km stretch of railroad that will run from the Thai border to Sisophon, the capital of Banteay Meanchey prov­ince, according to Sar Chamrong, chief of O’Chrou district, which in­cludes Poipet.

Poipet has already been ravaged by several land disputes that have led to incidents of violence. In Janaury alone, land disputes prompted two B-40 rocket attacks and one grenade explosion that resulted in one death and several people injured.

The plan to move the families for the railroad could be the next in a long series of relocations forced on poor, vunerable people in Cambodia, where land disputes and land grabs have been a major problem for the government in recent years.

Hundreds of Cambodians have come from the provinces to Phnom Penh to protest what they claim is unfair or illegal taking of their land. The government has set up a committee to deal with the disputes, but it has done little to quell the problem.

Advocates for land law reform say the government needs to establish clear rules about land titles and issues of ownership.

“People who have power say this is my land and force people to leave or burn their homes,” said Khieu Phalla, a communications, organization and education officer for Norwegian People’s Aid, an NGO in Poipet. “That’s why many people here can find land.”

The deadline for the first phase of 400 families to leave was Feb 17, but more than 200 families filed a complaint with the courts, provincial authorities and the National Assembly. The local court ordered the government to temporarily suspend its removal of the families, saying it was too soon to make such a move.

Government officials say the railroad is important for economic development, as it will be a part of the Asean railway project that will eventually run from Singapore up to Kunming province in China, some 600 km beyond here. The Banteay Meanchey leg is estimated to cost $16 million and officials are still looking for funding.

Sar Chamrong, the district chief, said he would file a counter complaint, saying the squatters  live illegally on state property.

“We will wait to see what happens,” he said.

Sar Chamrong said he would pay some of the poorest families who can’t afford to move $1,114 to $1,428 in compensation from the district’s budget.

San Soeun, 48, representative of the squatters who filed a complaint, said the villagers may agree to the compensation, but complained that no one told them where to go when they are removed.

“If we are forced to leave, we don’t know where to go,” San Soeun said. “They [authorities] didn’t tell us anything.”

Sar Chamrong said he is just carrying out the orders of the national government. He has asked railway authorities in Phnom Penh to send help because the local authorities can’t handle this case alone.

“After the removal, people may come back,” he said.

Sakhom Pheakavanmony, dir­ector of the Royal Railway Auth­ority of Cambodia, said he has sent one railway officer to Poipet to monitor the situation. Halcrow, a Bangkok-based company, has been hired to study the possibility of rehabilitating the railway network.

“Now that we have peace, it’s time for us to speed up the development of the railroad,” Sakhom Pheakavanmony said.

Land has been coveted among both the rich and the poor be­cause of Poipet’s proximity to the border, making it a good area for casino operators targeting Thai gamblers and migrant workers who make a living by carrying goods across the border. In turn, land prices have skyrocketed in recent years.

In Thailand, a government inspection team was planning this month to visit a casino construction site on the border because Thai residents complained the building has affected their livelihood, according to The Nation.

“Authorities can’t stop new people from coming and they can’t protect the areas from land grabs,” Khieu Phalla said. “The situation is getting worse.”

Khieu Phalla said there has even been problems on a 114 hectare-area of land given to Norwegian People’s Aid by provincial authorities. The land is meant for squatters who have been living in Poipet for more than five years, have six people in their family and earn less than about $3 a day.

“Sometimes people on [Nor­wegian People’s Aid] land attack each other, saying this is my land or that this land belongs to a general in the military,” Khieu Phalla said.

About 2,000 families can fit on the NGO’s land and 1,400 families have already been moved there. People’s Aid is doing a survey of the 5,000 families in the railroad case to see who qualifies for getting a small parcel of the land.

Vorng Soeung, 58, hopes she and her seven children get chosen to receive the NGO land. Her family makes a little more than $2 a day and has been living in Poipet since 1994. She says she also has nowhere to go if she is forced to leave.

“We are scared because we have nothing,” she said.



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