They sat outside the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh in the sweltering heat because, quite frankly, they had nowhere else to go. Such is the reality now for approximately 300 families of Phnom Penh’s Borei Keila district after they were forcibly evicted from their homes on January 3. The homes were then bulldozed to make way for corporate development on the land. Unjust? Regrettably, this story gets worse.
Urban poverty has remained a constant in Cambodia’s capital city since it was repopulated following the madness of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. With little to no help from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, many of the country’s poor have no alternative but to rely on philanthropic institutions and Western NGOs to meet their basic human needs. Indeed, the Cambodian government has often prioritized corporate investment, accompanied with the expected kickbacks for the political elite, above the needs of its citizens.
This was the case in the Borei Keila tragedy. The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) provided a brief history of the situation in a recent press release that encapsulated the transgressions which were allowed by the government to be perpetrated against the poor of Borei Keila by the construction company Phanimex:
“In early 2003, a "land-sharing" arrangement was proposed for Borei Keila, which allowed the well-connected construction company, Phanimex, to develop part of the area for commercial purposes while providing housing to the residents on the remaining land. Phanimex was obligated to build 10 apartment buildings on two hectares of land for the villagers in return for obtaining ownership of an additional 2.6 hectares for commercial development.”
“In April 2010, Phanimex unilaterally reneged on the agreement, however – with the approval of the government – and only constructed eight buildings. That left 300 Borei Keila families excluded from the original agreement – and still living in housing on the site. These were the homes that Phanimex representatives destroyed today.”
Many of the homes were bulldozed before their inhabitants could gather their personal effects from inside. On January 4, things turned violent. Several villagers began throwing rocks at the various individuals participating in the destruction, including police officers, security guards, and Phanimex workers. Police responded by firing tear gas at the protesters. The Phnom Penh Post reported that 10 people were injured and 20 more arrested.
So, with little recourse, about 70 former inhabitants of Borei Keila decided to camp out in front of the U.S. Embassy, hoping to garner some international attention. The Embassy, via its official Twitter page, issued a bland statement about the need to clarify property rights, and called for both sides to refrain from violence and to “exercise maximum restraint.”
This isn’t the first time the residents of Borei Keila have faced discrimination from the government. On June 18, 2009, 20 HIV-affected families living in the community were evicted and sent to a remote resettlement camp 15 miles away. This action was so egregious that it prompted a letter to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun
Sen from Human Rights Watch that decried the creation of a “de facto AIDS colony.”Ironically, the reason given by the Cambodian government for the evictions in 2009 was so that Phanimex could commercially develop the land; the residents who were displaced were to get new on-site housing built by Phanimex. This was the very housing which was never built for the families who had their current dwellings bulldozed this past week.
It doesn’t appear that anything else will be done from the U.S. perspective. Since the Cambodian government has sided with Phanimex, and the onus will in all likelihood shift to the country’s civil society to provide for the families of Borei Keila who are now, in effect, homeless.
It shouldn’t be a surprise to see society’s poorest being taken advantage of by a corporation that only has the bottom line on its mind. But when such people are also abandoned by their own government, whose primary objective is supposed to be to protect its citizens, it makes the situation that much more tragic and shameful.