PHNOM PENH, Jul 28 (IPS) – Tan Pho Yi, 65, has lived with his family in their corrugated iron home here in the Cambodian capital since 1992. Those 17 years came to an end in just 20 minutes when his family were evicted and their home torn down by City Hall’s workers on Jul. 17.
Standing outside his home as it was being demolished just down the road from the new Australian embassy, the teacher of modern art said he has had enough of living in Cambodia. “I don’t know where we will stay tonight,” he said, with tears in his eyes. “I want to go to Australia. I don’t want to be in Cambodia any more.”
The demolition team paused briefly while colleagues brought out Tan Pho Yi’s 63-year-old wife, Lok Sor, who was in a wheelchair. She watched the demolition of their house while seated next to a stack of corrugated iron, wood and their possessions.
As the morning wore on, the elderly couple’s belongings were loaded into the back of a truck, one of several dozen at the Group 78 eviction site in the heart of Phnom Penh. Tan Pho Yi said their property would go to a friend’s home while he and his wife work out how to rebuild their lives at the new relocation site outside the city.
Tan Pho Yi and his family are the latest of tens of thousands of mainly poor Cambodians who have been thrown off their land in the past few years. It is a nationwide problem, but is particularly acute in urban areas and tourist zones where land prices have climbed fastest.
The wave of forced evictions has reversed some of the gains from poverty alleviation programmes in the country, critics say.
The issue of land ownership in Cambodia is complicated, partly due to the legacy of the Khmer Rouge, which outlawed private ownership of property and destroyed all land records during its genocidal rule between 1975 and 1979.
It has been made worse by the rapid rise in land prices, which has resulted in entire communities being evicted in a scramble to pocket easy profits.
That links to the third problem, which is that residents who under Cambodia’s Land Law ought to be awarded legal title to their land are reportedly refused the paperwork by the authorities. In some parts of the country, there is too much money to be made by withholding legal title.
It is the lack of legal title that leads to the sights seen on the morning of Jul. 17, when dozens of red-shirted men from demolition teams arrived at 6 a.m., backed up by armed military police and riot police. The surrounding streets were blocked off, and although violence was not used this time – it has been in previous evictions – the threat was there.
The action had the unusual consequence of forcing Cambodia’s international donors, who fund around half of the country’s budget, to issue a statement calling on the government to halt forced evictions until “a fair and transparent mechanism for resolving land disputes is put in place and a comprehensive resettlement policy is developed”.
The statement was issued by the United Nations, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and a clutch of Western embassies. But the donor call came too late for G78’s residents, who originally numbered almost 150 families.
Human rights groups issued similar statements of concern. “Today is yet another black day for land rights in Cambodia,” said Naly Pilorge, the director of local human rights group Licadho. “Once more, some of Phnom Penh’s poorest and most vulnerable residents have been forced off their land in return for grossly inadequate compensation.”