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Last Updated: Friday, 29 September 2006, 15:49 GMT 16:49 UK
Cambodia's 'out of control' evictions
By Guy De Launey
BBC News, Phnom Penh

Human rights activists have warned that forced evictions in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh are spiralling out of control.

A shanty town shack with a sign protesting about evictions
People are being moved to new sites out of the city
In recent weeks, thousands of people have been removed from their homes, and thousands more are set to follow.

As the local authorities make the slum residents leave, property developers are waiting to move in to build luxury apartments and shopping centres.

The official line is that the evictions are necessary for the development of the city.

There are an increasing number of luxury housing projects in various stages of construction in and around Phnom Penh. Prices for each unit run into hundreds of thousands of dollars - well out of the reach of the vast majority of residents.

Estate agents say businessmen and well-connected officials are the main buyers, but at least a quarter of the units on average remain unsold.

By contrast, Phnom Penh's shanty towns have provided refuge for people at the bottom of the economic pile for at least two decades.

For families getting by on a couple of dollars a day, a bamboo and corrugated-iron shack in a slum is all they can afford.

Living in the city, however, provides the hope of a better life. There are employment opportunities for the adults, and children can go to school.

Some people have lived in the same place for more than a decade, giving them a strong legal claim to own their property - but that has had little effect on preventing evictions.

Sit-down protests

Village 14 was one of the city's biggest and longest-established shanty towns.

Hundreds of makeshift dwellings were crammed onto the muddy ground next to the Bassac River. Green sludge collected under the wooden porches of the shacks, and the tang of rotting vegetables mingled with the stench of raw sewage.

Ot Sokoeun
I could make a dollar and a half by selling some vegetables in the city, but it would cost two dollars to get there and back
Ot Sokoeun
Resettled dweller
Even so, it was still a community. The 1,200 families who lived there had set up an electricity supply, and simple grocery shops operated out of the front of some of the houses. There was even an official neighbourhood office.

All that has gone now.

At first, the residents were full of defiance. They staged a sit-down protest to prevent their homes from being dismantled.

The workers from a property development company that had claimed the land backed off, but their trucks still stood outside the shanty town, ready to shift the residents more than 20km away.

They returned with riot police, and the evictions began.

Soon, just a small huddle of people remained, shivering under blue tarpaulins as the rain came down. Within days, the riot police had moved them out as well - and the land where their homes had stood was enclosed with a green, corrugated-iron fence.

Other long-standing slum communities are facing the same fate.

They have been told the reason for their forthcoming eviction is the "beautification of the city."

The municipal authorities say the riverfront land they occupy should be for tourists, government ministries and luxury housing developments.

Continuing row

Meanwhile the former slum dwellers are finding life difficult in resettlement sites outside Phnom Penh which have no running water, mains electricity or sewage.

There are no markets or schools nearby, and the rainy season has caused conditions to deteriorate rapidly.

Phal Sithol
They use the word development as a pretext for evictions
Phal Sithol
Community council member

One elderly woman, Ot Sokoeun, wiped away tears as she explained how difficult it was to cope.

"When it rains, my shack is knee-deep in water, because of the poor drainage," she said.

"It is really hard to make a living. I could make a dollar and a half by selling some vegetables in the city, but it would cost two dollars to get there and back."

The municipal authorities insist that conditions will improve at the resettlement sites over time.

"Now people think it's very far from the city," said Phnom Penh's Deputy Governor, Mann Choeun. "But maybe in the near future this new area will be the centre of the city."

The residents of the remaining shanty towns are unconvinced.

They hope that instead of evicting them, the local authorities will work with them to upgrade their communities, but many of them think there is little chance of that happening.

"They use the word development as a pretext for evictions," claimed Phal Sithol, a member of the commune council for another riverside community.

"They say we're living on someone else's land, but we've been here since 1991, and the property developers didn't come until this year so how can that be the case?"

The arguments are likely to continue. The authorities have recently announced plans to fill-in and build on one of Phnom Penh's biggest lakes.

The development will bring more luxury housing as well as a park, but thousands more families will be displaced.

Evictions in Cambodia criticised
20 Aug 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Cambodia 'suffering land crisis'
02 Sep 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Cambodia is not 'hell', says PM
18 May 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Lights out in Phnom Penh
22 Feb 06 |  Business

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