Sarah R. Rose-Jensen
Phnom Penh has an extensive history of forced evictions, many of them violent. In 2007, Shukaku, Inc, began pumping sand into Boeung Kak Lake, creating a flood which forced residents from their homes, beginning a process which would see more than 3,000 families evicted from the former Lakeside. In 2009, in the early hours of the morning, armed security forces surrounded the Dei Krahom neighborhood. Over the next few hours bulldozers were used to raze homes, with the eventual result of more than 1,400 families being evicted. In 2012, more than 1,700 families were affected by the Borei Keila evictions, leaving many of them homeless to squat on a rubbish heap. Last month, the government began the process of evicting nearly 500 families from the iconic White Building. The key difference, was that in the case of the White Building, evictions took place in an orderly manner, complete with NGO and government observers, trucks to carry residents to new location, and one of the largest compensation packages yet given any case of forced eviction in Cambodia. What changed? On paper, very little – Cambodian and international law regarding evictions and compensation remains unchanged. Nor has international pressure on the Cambodian government seems to have been effective. The same week that the World Bank, which had disengaged from Cambodia in large part because of the Boeung Kak evictions and related human rights abuses, reengaged, Germany ended its land programs in Cambodia, allegedly in part because of frustration with lack of progress on reforms. What has changed is the ability of communities to organize themselves and work with a transnational network of supporters to ensure better outcomes for communities involved in land disputes with the Cambodian government.
Residents of the White Building were organized almost from the beginning. In addition to having copious negative examples of previous forced eviction in Cambodia, the community benefited from a robust civil society that has learned about effective tactics for combating evictions and adverse consequences of evictions. Land and housing rights activist have networked with other communities around Cambodia and the region and benefitted from domestic and international experience, becoming, among other things, savvy users of internet technology and social media to document, share, and ultimately combat human rights abuses. It seems clear that the days in which whole neighborhoods could be demolished without warning and with outrage only after the fact are waning if not over.
The question going forward is whether the experience of the residents of the White Building and their supporters is indicative of a change in how land deals will proceed in Phnom Penh in the near future. Though there are some signs of slowing, the property and construction booms continue in the capital city, virtually ensuring that more urban poor communities will be relocated, as center city real estate becomes increasingly valuable. One peaceful eviction is like one peaceful election cycle – on its own promising, but not yet indicative of a trend towards the better on the whole. As Cambodia nears its next election cycle and contentious politics in the country expands, treatment of urban and rural poor communities will be central to discussions of Cambodia’s future, along with several other key issues including conservation and forestry issues and labor rights. What is clear at this point, is the robust and well educated civil society, as well as protections on the ability to engage in that civil society, are securing better outcomes for urban poor residents involved in evictions disputes.
For more information on the White Building, see "Lights out for White Building Residents", Phnom Penh Post, 16 June 2017.