PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Rumbling bulldozers at 2 a.m. sent residents of the Dey Krahorm community scrambling from their beds. The time for eviction had come — not of an individual, or of a family, but as the final stage in the demolition of a 1,400-family neighborhood.
Neighbors and family members tried to stop the bulldozers and excavators from tearing down their homes by linking arms and forming a human wall around their neighborhood. But they could not withstand the tear gas. They broke ranks, choking and coughing. Besides tear gas, police beat residents with electric batons and fired rubber bullets into crowds.
The January 2009 incident was caught on videotape and set the tone for a year that brought the largest number of mass evictions in Phnom Penh since 1975, when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge evacuated the entire city in the process of killing more than 2 million Cambodians.
Over the past year, according to the Cambodia Housing Rights Task Force, a NGO dedicated to the issue, the Phnom Penh government has evicted and relocated an estimated 20,000 people, part of an increasing trend over the past decade in which poor people are being forcibly moved out of the city, and rich and powerful private companies take the land.
About 133,000 people have been evicted since 1990 from Phnom Penh alone, according to Licadho, a human rights organization, and an estimated 250,000 more have been displaced in the provinces since 2003.
“My neighbor, when he saw the truck breaking his house, he tried to jump in front of the truck and die, but another neighbor stopped him,” a 19-year-old former resident, who gave only her first name, Lina, said. “The people were crying. They did not have time to take their possessions out of their homes before the men broke them down.”
Lina told her story as we stood atop a nearby building, looking down on the site, now a dusty lot filled with rubble.
While those evicted in Phnom Penh are the most visible victims, land-grabbing and forced displacement is happening all over the country at an unprecedented rate, said David Pred, director of Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia, an organization that promotes human rights in the region.
“This is the most serious human rights problem in Cambodia today,” Pred said of the land-grabbing. “It is not getting nearly the attention it deserves.”
Pred said that more than one quarter of Cambodia’s arable land has been granted to private corporations in the form of economic land concessions, displacing people from their farm lands and forests that they depend upon for their subsistence. If they have paperwork proving ownership, they might receive some sort of compensation, but most do not, according to Phearum Sia, director of the Housing Rights Task Force, another advocacy group in Phnom Penh. Renters are not compensated.
In Phnom Penh, the government usually loads those it evicts onto buses and transports them to a distant point and drops them off. The government sometimes ensures adequate housing; other times, the former residents find themselves in an empty field with nothing.
At some relocation sites, residents who worked in the city said they sometimes paid more per day in fuel costs traveling to Phnom Penh and back than they earned in a day.
Community members have occasionally protested, but these efforts sometimes backfire. A 2008 land dispute in Siem Reap between poor rice farmers and the government ended in multiple arrests and the police opening fire on a crowd of about 200 people, injuring four. Other protests fizzle before confrontation. Ghosts of the Khmer Rouge terror linger in the national psyche, Sia said.
“We work to empower the people, but the people are poor, and weak in their solidarity,” Sia said. “Our communities are still affected by the Pol Pot regime. He killed without law and without justice.”
Mann Chhoen, deputy governor of Phnom Penh, said he is responsible for land rights issues, but twice declined comment for this article.
Phnom Penh city police guard the sites of impending evictions and attempt to keep out NGO workers and journalists. At one site on Boeung Kak Lake, where a Cambodian development company known as Shukaku seized 3.6 hectares of land and began using the city’s police force to evict the occupants, police on three occasions barred our way and threatened us with arrest for even approaching the site where several evictions were in progress.
At Dey Krahorm, 200 former residents observed the one-year anniversary of their eviction, Jan. 24, with a procession to the edge of the wall surrounding their former neighborhood. Police officers in plain clothes, their walkie-talkies peeking from beneath their polo shirts, monitored the gathering and photographed the faces of those present, but didn’t try to break up the gathering.
There was no point.
The government had already destroyed their homes.