PHNOM PENH--Over the past year, tens of thousands of Cambodians have been forcibly evicted from their homes in the name of development.
The policy, implemented as this late-blooming Southeast Asian country embarks on economic catch-up in the region, has emerged as a serious social issue, along with gun-related violence and arbitrary arrests.
Baton-wielding riot police closed off nearby roads and established an intimidating presence outside the regional court in the capital on the morning of May 24 as dozens of protesters gathered.
More than 80 exiled inhabitants of Boeung Kak, a 90-hectare lake on the north side of the city, yelled repeatedly for the release of 13 former neighbors who were arrested two days earlier.
Work began two years ago to fill in the lake, which lies adjacent to an area that is home to the prime minister's offices and luxury hotels so that commercial facilities and other structures could be built.
The residents were forcefully evicted.
One of them, 41-year-old Sen Touch, had lived in a house built on stilts over the lake since 1979, along with her husband and their three children. The family of five earned $450 (about 36,000 yen) a month by renting out rooms.
They refused to move because they were to be relocated at least 20 kilometers away. By November 2010, work got under way to fill in the lake.
The family now lives in a rented home on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, relying on construction work paying 30,000 riels (about 600 yen) a day.
In response to repeated resident protests and a World Bank decision to freeze new loans to Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen last September ordered that 12 hectares of the reclaimed land be set aside for residential use. Eighteen families, including Sen Touch's, then tried to build temporary housing on the sand where their homes had once stood, but they were stopped by the authorities. Thirteen of her fellow residents were arrested and, two days later, they were sentenced to prison terms in unusually speedy proceedings.
The authorities deemed Sen Touch and some of the other residents as squatters, and denied they had any right to reside there.
That's because a nearly two-decade civil war and the institutional reforms that followed slowed progress on land ownership and rights to residence, leaving many people in limbo. The government has no system in place to compensate residents for forced evictions.
According to ADHOC, a local NGO that champions human rights, roughly 60,000 people have been forcefully removed in Cambodia in the past year alone, half of them from Phnom Penh.
Already this year, a number of residents in regional cities have been shot dead during clashes with companies that obtained development rights and security forces.
A 14-year-old girl died May 15 in Kratie Province after soldiers fired on a crowd. On April 26, an activist was shot and killed in Koh Kong Province.
RIGHTS ALSO GRANTED TO FOREIGN FIRMS
According to the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO), an NGO, the government has granted more than 3.9 million hectares in development rights to companies, accounting for 22 percent of the country's entire land area.
The rights reportedly were granted for development projects, including mines, rubber plantations, industrial parks and commercial facilities. Some were granted to Chinese and Vietnamese firms.
However, government institutions and companies have categorically refused to be interviewed on the subject.
Sia Phearum, the director of the Housing Rights Task Force, an NGO umbrella organization, points out that "many of the companies are close to the ruling party and key government insiders." He cites the case of a senator from the ruling party who was granted a 99-year right to development on reclaimed land on Boeung Kak lake.
"The Hun Sen government's autocracy lies at the root of the problem," Sia Phearum said.
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