A Change of Guard

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Thursday, 29 January 2009

Bricks, walls but no money: revision of the compensations promised to Dey Krohom evicted families

By Ros Dina
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Damnak Trah Yeung (Cambodia, Phnom Penh). 25/01/2009: Dey Krohom residents after their eviction, waiting for 7NG to allocate them one of the houses promised by the company © John Vink/ Magnum

Finding inspiration in the many ubiquitous dormitory towns springing up relentlessly one after the other on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, the Cambodian company 7NG built its “City of Peace II” (Borey Santepheap II) in the working district of Chom Chao. There, rows of simple 4m x 12m shophouses [official surface area offered by 7NG: 48m2] form several parallel lines. At the front, red-brick buildings shoot up from the ground. These are for selling. At the back, apartments. Their construction is partially complete. They are painted in white and have a side folding metal grille at their entrance. These are the houses that the company 7NG promised to give to holdout families who have been fighting against the company since 2006, refusing to let go of their land at Dey Krohom (Bassac settlement, Phnom Penh). These same families were savagely evicted at dawn, on Saturday January 24th.

Anarchical distribution of food
Borey Santepheap II, Monday January 26th. Filmed by a public television channel camera crew, bags of rice and boxes of dehydrated noodles are given out to evicted families. The distribution, organised by 7NG company officials and attended by representatives of the municipality, suddenly looks like a very official ceremony. Off-camera scenes: women crying out of hunger, exclaiming their incomprehension on the reasons why they are not allocated these same donations, promised as compensations by the concessionary company. “We haven't eaten anything for two days. But we too, lived in Dey Krohom...”, one of the women says, showing a sad and exhausted face.

We then walk away from the scene to look for the office where “coupons” are given out, entitling families to emergency food kits. The municipality of Phnom Penh encouraged the last 150 families living in Dey Krohom – i.e. the 91 families officially acknowledged by the company and entitled to a house or some money, and the 59 other families – to claim this property, to which they are allegedly all entitled. But instead of a clear written list of all beneficiaries, a man, presented as Dey Krohom's former village chief, points at those who will be given a coupon. When he claims not to know the face of someone, that person has to miss their go... Very quickly, complaints started coming out here and there. “But it is impossible for you to know all of our faces!”, some say in protest. The gathering soon turned into vast disorder and people had to be dispersed.

Makeshift camps made of bits and pieces provide shelter for some of the families who were not recognised by 7NG, and dream about a house on this site while others, duly registered on the list, are still asking 7NG for financial compensation rather than being allocated a dwelling there. They ended up on the site and are here “temporarily, waiting”, having nowhere to go to, they explain. For their everyday needs, they have a canal with water looking more than cloudy, and vast ricefields. “There is nothing here, apart from mosquitoes! It is scorching hot here, the state school for our children is located about 3 miles away from here and security is not good! Last night, there was a fight, a woman called for help and nobody budged...”, an elderly, former resident at Dey Krohom, reports. She used to live off selling half-hatched eggs in Hun Sen Gardens.

Many families would indeed have here housing structures made of permanent materials, better than the wooden shelters most of them lived in at Dey Krohom. But, as it often happens, families are rehoused before the site is complete, prepared and ready, and, in that particular case, just before Chinese new year celebrations... and far from the centre of Phnom Penh where they used to work.

An idealised village?
On Saturday, the day of the eviction, 7NG director Srey Chanthou and the vice-governor of Phnom Penh, Mann Chhoeun, painted in front of journalists an idyllic picture of the City of Peace, where everything was supposedly ready to welcome them... However, a few details undermine the picture. First, the zone is indeed connected to the electricity and clean water networks... but not the houses. And the price for individual installation goes about USD140 for electricity and USD150 for water. Then, after a rough inspection, it looks like not enough houses are ready. Builders are still at work. And “because of the Chinese new year”, as we were told, only a dozen inhabitants from Dey Krohom obtained their keys to an apartment.

Mann Chhoeun's viewpoint is that many will yet find something to suit them: “Before, inhabitants even refused to come and see what the area looks like, they imagined it was pandemonium. When they discover the place, they change their mind! Here, there is no fire hazard like there was in Dey Krohom and a micro-finance agency [belonging to 7NG] is here to help them buy means of transportation and launch small businesses. 7NG has already paid on Monday [January 26th] 100 millions out of the 700 million riels reserved for these small loans...”

In those times of resettlement, keeping it to oneself seems important. We interviewed a resident who had recently arrived on site and was busy putting a few of his belongings in his new home. He was explaining that he had “had no other choice but to accept”, when two men turned up on their motorcycles. The men, two former representatives for the Dey Krohom community who left three years ago, stationed themselves behind us to pointedly follow the conversation. Our interviewee, all of a sudden chilled by this way of intimidation which does not speak its name, was reduced to silence.

Negotiations ended
It is hard to gather figures that tally. 7NG manager Srey Chanthou assures that apart from the eight families who accepted the USD20,000 offer before the ultimatum was given, “50% already”of the remaining 83 families, entitled to compensation, according to his company's criteria, have reportedly accepted to take accommodation at Borey Santepheap II, and claims that “the regulation of papers is being dealt with”. As for the others, they are struggling to receive financial compensations, a choice which had until now been offered to them but is not valid any longer. “The company does not give money any more but just accommodation”, Srey Chanthou announces. However, on the day of the eviction, vice-governor Mann Chhoeun declared that principles established by 7NG should be strictly followed: a house or financial compensation... His memory has since become confused. Reminded of his words on Monday, the vice-governor claimed he was only a “middleman” in this case and that the ultimatum was indeed over... “Too late!”, Srey Chanthou said. Now that families have been evicted, there are no negotiations any more!”

Residents said they tried, a few days before the eviction, to obtain the 20,000 dollar-compensation, but were told they first had to dismantle their house to receive half of the sum; nothing was said as to when they would receive the rest... On the municipal side, Mann Chhoeun openly accuses inhabitants of being manipulated, which would explain their stubbornness in asking for money...

As for the 59 families who are not listed by 7NG, their fate does not come under his responsibility, Srey Chanthou explains. However, he adds that the fifty inhabitants who were registered as sellers in Dey Krohom will be entitled to a small stand at the local market, which is still struggling to take shape.

A meeting held at the Phnom Penh municipality offices between Mann Chhoeun and a dozen family representatives did not result in anything satisfying for the latter, who decided, out of desperation, to march towards the National Assembly with some forty other residents to urge Members of Parliament to support their claims, namely receiving compensation in dollars rather than bricks. Chan Vichet, their representative, also acted as a spokesman for the 59 families ousted of the lists but who, according to him, were for sure put down on the lists checked by local authorities in 2006 when the Dey Krohom population was estimated to include 1,465 families, before they disappeared from 7NG's latest lists.

Final recourse: the National Assembly
Following a long and tiresome lopsided fight, a representative for families, exhausted and desperate, struggled to find his words in front of some sixty inhabitants gathered outside the National Assembly. “All hope seems to have vanished, and what is left with us is the bitter feeling of being tossed about with contempt by the municipality and 7NG. We have been wronged”, Chan Vichet explains. Yet, this last resisting group will not give up. Late on Tuesday January 27th, residents were preparing to camp in front of the National Assembly - with a risk of being evicted by the police - since no representative of the legislative power came to meet them.

Among representatives of Human rights who came to back them up, Yeng Virak, director of the CLEC (Community Legal Education Centre) made a list of the many violations committed in this case. “Firstly, pursuant to a decision made by prime Minister Hun Sen to turn Dey Krohom into a social concession, inhabitants should have become the owners of their plot of land. Secondly, the contract signed between 7NG and representatives of residents was absolutely illegal because the latter acted in their own interest. Thirdly, the company was not allowed to evict families before a Court ruled on this case. Fourthly, the destruction of residents' personal property during the eviction must be condemned and give way to compensations. Finally, such an act is seen as a violation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Cambodia did ratify.”

To this day, the tough eviction of Dey Krohom inhabitants has been condemned by important local organisations (Housing Rights Task Force, ADHOC, LICADHO, CLEC, CCDH, Bridges Across Borders South East Asia and COHRE) as well as Amnesty International. They particularly urge the government to address the needs of these families and understand their claims, especially their request for financial compensation.

Also on Ka-set

- Multimedia slideshow on the Dey Krohom eviction (24-01-2009)
- Land violences in Cambodia: Dey Krohom razed to the ground following a tough eviction (24-01-2009)

- Ownership in Cambodia – A few dates (20-02-2008)

On the Net

Video of the Dey Krohom eviction
- LICADHO (Cambodia): dossier on Dey Krohom

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