Cambodia is in the throes of another land-grab drama in the early days of 2012, after the Borei Keila slum development was suddenly razed on the morning of January 3rd. The wealthy Phan Imex development company had promised the slum’s residents 10 alternate apartment buildings to make up for their soon-to-be destroyed homes: instead, the company built only 8 facilities.
Many Borei Keila residents fought back against riot police, in a fray that lasted half a day and saw plentiful injures on both sides. But the villagers couldn’t hold out long: 300 families soon found themselves out on the streets.
The luckiest among them were eventually allowed to take plots of land in desolate and far-off relocation sites, with hygiene and safety standards worse than those found in many refugee camps. The unlucky are now homeless, roaming the streets of Phnom Penh and asking for help from anyone who will listen. Despite protests outside Western embassies, no international help is forthcoming for the abandoned of Borei Keila.
This is a photo essay about the Borei Keila site itself, which I managed to get into after my friend Alex, who lives near the site, texted me to tell me the police had finally moved away from the area. Cops barred my previous attempts to get into the site, after some heart-wrenching photographs were released to the public from the January 3rd violence.
“They tore down one building and they’re tearing down another,” he told me. My boyfriend and I immediately headed over to the site.
I scrambled around on rebar, tile, and brick, and took some photos of the collapsed apartment building. Many random possessions—bras, stuffed animals, clothing items—were strewn among the bricks. Some of these things probably belonged to the protesters I’ve spoken with outside the US Embassy.
This woman was trash-picking the wreckage of the apartment complex. I don’t know if she lived there or not.
It is at times difficult to avoid the Stuffed Animal Poignantly Sits Amid Wreckage photograph. In any case, it tells the story.
These kids live at Borei Keila and were interested in me and my camera. I’ve heard the apartment complexes they are standing in front of are slated for destruction in the near future. I hope they have somewhere to go.
This woman was hanging laundry outside her apartment. I think this complex will be taken down soon as well. As my boyfriend pointed out, the hanging trees make the complex look almost like an Angkor-era temple.
Change-agent. Friendly construction workers. Like they have a say in this one way or the other. Some of these guys probably live in very similar conditions.
As my boyfriend and I went through my photos, we stopped at this shot of kids playing outside the still-standing complex. “They were playing some game involving shooting each other,” I told him.
“They were playing riot police against villagers,” he said. “Look at the cardboard shields.”
I’m almost certain he was right. These three kids, after all, saw one of Phnom Penh’s most violent housing riots in recent years on Tuesday. Cops armed with riot shields shot rubber bullets at residents armed with stones and Molotov cocktails. Many were injured on both sides.
Why wouldn’t they decide to emulate the most terrifying – and exciting – event they’ve probably ever seen?
This kid was playing with a toy excavator extremely similar to the one taking down what may have been his former home. The irony was probably lost on him, but I doubt it was lost on the small group of hard-faced adults standing nearby.
The Borei Keila site is directly behind a bus station where there are always at least 30 foreign tourists having a drink and awaiting the next bus out. They probably have no idea what has happened to the former residents of Borei Keila. I like to hope they’ll pick up a local English paper at some point during their visit here and realize what was going on literally behind their backs.
A food vendor has set up shop outside Borei Keila, and a couple of families seem to have taken up residence on mats set up in this sandy corridor, in lieu of anywhere better to go. This man was selling eggs. He didn’t look very happy to see me.
I wish it was easier to explain sometimes why I’m taking pictures of other people’s pain.
The common theme in these examples of extreme government force?
A total lack of respect for Cambodia’s own people.
Cambodia has become a country so divided by rich and poor that I suspect the top-brass of this nation find it difficult to regard their poorer relatives as people, much less as equal players in an ostensibly democratic society.
Brutal violence against the poor seems to be becoming more normal. We may recall the beating of a Boueng Kak lake protester late last year into a bloody pulp. We may recall the constant clashes between police and protesters at the lake – clashes which forced the World Bank into action (not that it seems to give two farts about Borei Keila).
The people of Cambodia were under the impression that the boot of the powerful had finally, after so much suffering and battle, been removed from their necks. Instead, the poor are finding themselves ground face-first into the dirt once again—in the most literal sense of the word.
Interesting debate on Twitter today over whether Cambodia’s course of development will more closely mirror that of India or China.
The consensus? It’s going to be much more like China. China has achieved a true economic miracle in the past 20 or 30 years.
It has done so by means of forced evictions, the violent suppression of free speech, liberal prison terms, a widely enforced death penalty, and the deployment of a police state so profoundly creepy that it has every ostensibly free Western nation worried.
This is in stark contrast to India, where a robust, if shockingly corrupt democracy, means that people do have some legal apparatus to fight back when a developer wants to take their land. It takes a long time to get things built in India because of this. Some might argue it takes too long.
But India, at least for the time being, isn’t willing to pay the price in human suffering that China has for rapid economic development. For that reason, I’ll take India over China anytime, anywhere, for any reason.
Things are better in this country than they used to be – no one will dispute that. But as one mototaxi driver and Khmer Rouge survivor told us at Phnom Bat last week: “This (the evictions) reminds me of the Khmer Rouge time.”
If someone who survived one of the most murderous regimes in human history is drawing the analogy—the analogy a lot of us international commentators are awfully loathe to draw— perhaps we’d best listen.
Last year, we had Preah Vihear. This year, instead of Thai on Cambodian aggression, Cambodia appears to be turning on its own people.
Worst of all, it is turning on the poor and defenseless.
The Phnom Penh Municipality issued another poor explanation for its detention of 30 women and children at the Prey Speu Social Detention Center Friday. I’m here once again to break it down for you.
Claiming to have “investigated” the 22 families detained at the center, the City found…..
“14 families illegally bought the house on the State’s land (during the restricted period). In exchange to that illegally bought-houses the authority offer compensations with a new plot of land, but sadly they rejected the offer;
06 families illegally bought the house on the State’s land but not for living; instead, they rent it out; (Right, what with being poor and all. One would think if you owned a house, you’d have the right to do whatever you wanted to do it with it.)
01 family had been compensated with a house but later on the house was sold. This family is asking for a new one for their children. (Because keeping an entire extended and prolific Cambodian family together in one tiny apartment will work out great for everyone involved.)
01 family is an opportunist-squatter. This family stayed on the spot hoping for compensation. Initially, they agreed to the authority offer of 500USD and a plot of land but later on they rejected the offer. (Because that is a lousy offer. Having seen those plots of land, I agree with evictees who said “they aren’t fit for a dog.” Further, having talked to these evictees, the cash offers were more along the lines of $50—and those who did receive plots of land often had to pay cash to get them)
One pities the city authorities. Trying so hard to get by with their paltry incomes, scraping for gas to fill up their Lexuses and keep their wives in high-end footwear—and these horrible evictees are asking for something more than a piss-stained plot of land in the middle of nowhere in exchange for their long-term homes.
We would like you to thoroughly consider is it appropriate that some families illegally bought the house on the state’s land while others initially agreed to the arranged compensation policy but later on they rejected the offers?
Poor developers – it must have just slipped your mind to build those last two apartment complexes.
After all— it’s so easy to forget to complete major building projects. (Case in point: the Phnom Penh skyline).
Now, here’s the real winner of the statement….
“Transferring these 22 families to temporary stay in Prey Speu Center does not mean that they are under detention. The purpose is to give them a proper care and provide vocational trainings. But if you still accuse that the authority attempts to detain them, we would like to question if they were under detention why they can freely and comfortably make phone calls out or contact outside the center? During their stay in this center, the authority is trying to figure out their real needs and intentions. They are entitled to every rights as long as they respect the law. “
The Phnom Penh Municipality appears to believe that we—media, evictees, the public—are unaware of the fact that detained people are generally allowed to make phone-calls. Cell-phones have this remarkable ability to operate through walls. You should try it sometime.
Also, note “the authority is trying to figure out their real needs and intentions.”
The writer of this statement, with that single sentence, has suddenly rendered this supposedly “comforting” missive creepily Orwellian.
In a democratic state—which Cambodia swears up and down it is—the people dictate their own needs and intentions, not an amorphous body of authorities at a detention center.
In a democratic state, peaceful protesters are not forced into a bus, along with their children, and shoved into a “center” which various human rights groups have likened to a prison.
Further: Yeng Virak of the Community Legal Education Center has stated authorities have threatened some of the detainees at Prey Speu into agreeing to be relocated to the Phnom Bat relocation camps, in exchange for their release.
This is nothing less than coercion—and once again, this is not what a democratic state does to its own people.
“On the other hand, we suggest that your judgement should be based on an impartial press, not on the bias and misleading one which does not reflect the press ethics and might lead you to wrong conclusion. If possible, we would welcome you to Phnom Penh to see what is really happening rather than only listening to bias, groundless and meaningless information. Then, you will understand the hardship and challenges the authority is facing.”
The only possible answer to this is: I’m media. I’m in Phnom Penh. I’ve been to Borei Keila, I’ve been to Phnom Bat, I’ve been to the US Embassy. I’m drawing my conclusions from what I’ve seen and heard on a first person basis.
The conclusion I draw from these poorly written and argued municipality missives is this:
The Cambodian authorities are operating under the assumption that both media and evictees are stupid—stupid and lazy. I hope we can prove them wrong.
I visited the Borei Keila relocation sites yesterday, and was truly disturbed by what I saw. The term “relocation site” evokes neutral images, perhaps more akin to FEMA trailers or temporary housing, somewhere not-like-home but at least adequate for basic human needs.
The Borei Keila evictees relocation site at Phnom Bath is not adequate for basic human needs.
100 families were scraping in the dust yesterday at the relocation site, located at the foot of Udong mountain, Cambodia’s post-Angkorian royal capital. The evictees are currently living in tents, in basic shacks, and in hastily-constructed sheds. The sounds of hammering, sawing, and low-budget construction by villagers fills the air, along with the shrieks of children.
The graceful spires of the old empire’s royal temples are clearly visible from the camp.
Only 60 of the 100 families interned here – and interned is the appropriate word – have been “recognized” by the Phan Imex development company as legitimate land recipents.
There was no natural shade nearby, no toilet facilities, and water of dubious quality from a nearby well. A medical center is reputed to be nearby, but no medical presence was evident. Small bags of pills laid on the ground, and human waste was almost everywhere.
A small army of children roamed the facility, wearing dirty and ripped clothing, some with recent and seemingly-untreated wounds. Most of the residents were women with young children, the sick, the mentally ill, and the old. Pregnant women feared especially for the health of their children to be.
A woman with diabetes had not had insulin in days, and was suffering from severe swelling as she sat on a rough wooden pavilion, shaded by a blanket. Human rights NGO Licadho has been allowed to distribute supplies on the scene, but there is only so much they can do.
Sam Rainsy party lawmaker and human rights activist Mu Sochua arrived at the site with a loudspeaker, asking trepidaitus villagers to tell their stories. Many seemed initially reluctant, wary of publicly expressing their grievances, and were shoved by the group to take the stand alone.
“This is the Cambodian way,” our driver and translator commented. “If they talk all together, they aren’t scared.”
The forgotten families stories all were similar. One man had resided in Borei Keila for 13 years, near the home of the commune chief—but the commune chief claimed he’d never seen him before.
A moto taxi driver, the man compared Phan Imex’s action to the Pol Pot era, which he was old enough to remember clearly. The comparison, extreme as it is, seem apt.
This was yet another time in Cambodian history where families were herded away from their homes to desolate scraps of countryside, where inequality was never adequately explained.
“If the village chief says he doesn’t know you, they don’t have to give you houses,” our translator said. “Maybe they paid off the chief.”
Others said the company demanded from $1000 to $3000 dollars for a slot in the eight apartment buildings the Phan Imex company had built for the Borei Keila evictees. The company had promised to build ten buildings, but went back on its deal: 300 families were left in the lurch.
“Our husbands are back in Phnom Penh,” many of the women said, carrying babies and small children with them. There is nowhere for these people to work here at Phnom Bath, a good 60 kilometers from the Borei Keila evictees original homes in the heart of Phnom Penh.
Most were formerly employed in the lowest rungs of Phnom Penh’s economy, subsisting off the scraps of a growing city – trash pickers, metal collecters, and motorcycle taxi drivers. There is nothing for them to do here, in a dusty and desolate field.
The 40 unrecognized families claim to anyone who listens that they have records and papers stating they lived in Borei Keila, but the documents were destroyed along with their homes last Tuesday, leaving them with no time to grab their possessions from the rubble.
Confused children haven’t been to school since the January 3rd evictions, and don’t know when they will return. “I want to go back to school, but I don’t know where it is here,” one ten year old boy said. He used to attend the Chaktomuk High School in downtown Phnom Penh, across the street from Borei Keila.
His story reflects that of many of the children who have been shunted away from their former homes, their school-clothes and books destroyed along with their apartments.
The haves-and-have-nots verbally squared off as Mu Sochua spoke at the site yesterday, as those who were given tiny plots of land by the company (and were, as some suspected, perhaps paid off) traded insults with those who were, in technical terms, merely squatting.
The arbitrary nature of Phan Imex’s handouts has led to division within this small and traumatized group of evictees. Some with money, connections, or the luck to have held onto their documents have been given a plot of land, some rice, and even a bicycle: others from the same community, long-term neighbors, have been given nothing.
The reasons for this gross inequality are unclear to everyone—and that means jealousy is just about inevitable.
Ms Sochua attempted to address this division to the crowd, telling them that they will be stronger if they work together, if they attempt to overlook their inequal treatment by a common enemy. She told them they had a human right to protest, that they shouldn’t beg.
“There are two communities in this community, and it’s ruthless,” a shaken-looking Mu Sochua told us after she addressed the crowd.
Divide-and-conquer tactics seem to have done their dirty work on this desperate group of people.
The 60 families who are not “recognized” by Phan Imex truly have nowhere to go. Protesting has got them nowhere.
The families who have not been provided for by Phan Imex are being swept around the rug. Their only option, once they have been kicked out of their squatters spots at Phnom Bath—which will likely occur soon—will be homelessness.
Their children will be unable to go back to school, and their health will suffer as they attempt to scrape out a living, or find somewhere else to live. Typhoid and malaria are common here: without adequate toilet facilities, or mosquito nets to sleep under, it seems these evictees will be especially vulnerable when the rainy season comes around again.
Phan Imex is perpetuating the dark cycle of poverty in Cambodia, and worst of all, both the government and international entities have done nothing to stop it.
The US Embassy has thus far ignored the legitimate complaints of the Borei Keila evictees who camped out on their doorstep for days, and submitted an official petition—and so have the other Western nations these forgotten families have begged for help.
According to Phnom Penh’s English-language papers, 100 Borei Keila families have been denied land at the Ponhea Leu relocation site, after they made the 45-km trek outside the city to the desolate “housing” area.
Why were these families denied? According to Phan Imex development company chief Suy Sophan, 122 of the families who showed up to claim their very own patch of desolate moonscape were “greedy cheaters” who had already been given apartments by the company.
Do I even need to point out the shattering irony of filthy-rich Suy Sophan calling impoverished and homeless villagers whom she personally evicted “greedy cheaters?”
Sophan did, despot-like, agree to distribute 25-kg bags of rice to the peasantry, after they kneeled down to her and begged for food. How big hearted of Ms Sophan! Let’s call in a Nobel nomination!
I am somewhat disturbed by the Phnom Penh Post’s article’s take on the subject, which devoted most of the article to Suy Sophan’s “benevolence” and much less to the villagers themselves and their problems.
The article did point out that some of the evictees are in-fighting over cheating allegations—and notes that one woman was denied land for her sister since they counted as “one family.”
Those are going to be some crowded-ass “relocation sites” if every single member of one’s nuclear family and their children will be forced into a single speck of land or apartment. (Has anyone taken a look at these 8 apartment complexes Phan Imex has built? I suppose my schedule is open this week….)
Remember: the so-called relocation site at Ponhea Lu in Kandal Province is in fact an amenity free patch of dirt without shelters, toilets, or running water. Various human rights NGOs have denounced the sites as unsuitable for human habitation.
Those lucky enough to be granted a plot are being forced to live in tents in the dirt. Not exactly the apartments Phan Imex promised them.
Phan Imex has publicly announced it will give land, equipment and food to families evicted from what will be a lucrative development site – but as last week demonstrated, this largesse may be long in coming, or may never arrive at all.
After all, Phan Imex went back on its rather enormous promise to build 10 apartment complexes instead of 8. Why should anyone trust them?
I am headed out the relocation site Thursday and will report back with photographs. I have a sneaking suspicion the people I talk to will not have as rosy a view of the relocation site as Suy Sophan does.
The Municipality claims that “many homes were provided to majority of them, and the small remaining has not accepted those homes at all and yet they demands for extra things.”
Considering that 300 families have been left homeless due to the Phan Imex company’s decision to build only 8 of 10 promised apartment complexes, this is one profoundly weak argument.
Yes, people were mad: they were mad because what was offered to these 300 forgotten was a bleak, empty moonspace of dirt. The residents of Borei Keila were promised alternate housing: they did not expect this to mean a tent pitched in an empty field without electricity or toilets, far from their former homes.
According to the Municipality, a “joined force of the onsite commission” went to the community to “give information to people who are not qualified to get homes from the government such as those who built shelters without proper permit or buy units from others, and the commission, through its observation, required those who already received homes but rent to other and demanded for another one to remove their temporary shelters immediately.”
The English is broken, but the Municipality’s release makes it sound like a peaceful group of guys armed with nothing but clip-boards went to Borei Keila to tell a group of stubborn, no good-squatters to please move off private property.
The Municipality is also blatantly accusing the Borei Keila evictees who are still living on the site of renting out their oh-so-lovely government appointed homes to others, or greedily requesting another one of those aforementioned oh-so-lovely government appointed homes.
As someone who has been out to the Borei Keila slum site, I can readily assure you that very few people would live there if they had a shinier, newer option available.
Than there’s the niggling matter of violence. The Municipality makes it sound like aforementioned nice-dudes-with-clipboards were viciously set upon by armed villagers, and had no choice but to defend themselves.
I don’t discount that a villager probably did (quite literally) throw the first stone – and perhaps a couple Molotov cocktails – but the fact that the police responded with rubber bullets, rock, tear gas and riot shields indicates they weren’t exactly passive victims.
Further, the fact that the Municipality took such an armada of equipment with them indicates they fully expected the villagers would not peacefully shrug and pack up their things – belying the statement’s seeming assumption that this explosion of violence was a big surprise.
30 villagers were injured in the fray, and 34 police. The Municipality makes no mention of the villagers injuries. No mention is made of the 8 villagers arrested in the fray is made.
The arrest (and release) of three soldier members of Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit and recent-returnees from Preah Vihear isn’t mentioned either.
What’s the Municipality’s official version of the violence?
“After that (the first thrown rock) competent forces took appropriate measures to handle the situation with those people and removed settlements which are not qualified as homes set by the Government. Doing so is to ensure the state of law and to do justice to more than a thousand families who have voluntarily accepted homes from the Government in Borey Keila.”
Right – the battle against the evictees was waged to “do justice” to those more than a thousand families who were given slots in the 8 apartment buildings Phan Imex managed to build. This important detail is also, curiously enough, missing from the Municipality’s statement.
Here’s another interesting facet of these anti-eviction protests, both at Boueng Kak and Borei Keila: government authorities seem to believe that political figures, foreigners, and NGOs are provoking the slum-dwellers into action, not the slum-dwellers themselves.
According to the municipality, protesters were “provoked to protest or trigger other actions by some misbehavior propagating from some politicians in order to insert pressure on public authorities only to demonstrate that they deserve the full rights to obtain more homes from the government.”
It is apparantly beyond the comprehension of Phnom Penh city leaders that poor Cambodians could independently become outraged over being booted out of their homes and given little to nothing in return. Do Cambodia’s rich really take such a low view of their poor counterparts?
I’m forced to conclude that they do – that they assume the people of Borei Keila are “too simple” to come up with the concept of protesting and demonstrating public outrage on their own. Sure, government and NGO leaders – some of them foreigners – have assisted Cambodian evictees with protest tactics.
But these protest tactics are self-propagating, as was proved this week outside the US Embassy when Boueng Kak Lake evictee representatives showed up to support the Borei Keila contingent. They fired up the crowd, offered advice and sympathy, and provided instruction on how to fight back against the powers that be.
Most importantly, the Boueng Kak victims implored the residents of Borei Keila not to give up and not to stand down.
From the looks of things, the people of Borei Keila have taken this advice to heart. Protests are planned outside Hun Sen’s house and the Royal Palace. Thus far, only the European Union has committed to taking up the matter with the Cambodian government. We can only hope other nations will follow.
The Municipality’s statement is even more evidence that the city of Phnom Penh and the Cambodian government care little about the poor—and take a very low view of their intelligence.
Refusing to accept that the 300 forgotten families of Borei Keila may have a real grievance, they are instead demonized by their own elected leaders as violent rabble-rousers too spoilt to accept what has generously been given to them.
If this dismissive and demeaning attitude towards Cambodia’s poor is allowed to continue, the future of human rights in the Kingdom looks dark indeed.
My friend Alex, who lives very close to Borei Keila, texted me around 5:00 PM today. He told me construction workers had torn down one of the old and emptied apartment buildings at the Borei Keila land-grab site, and that they were in the process of tearing down another.
Police presence was heavy and aggressive when I tried to take shots at the site on Thursday, but Alex told me that the guards had left—perhaps they figured journalists would take the day off on Saturday—and I could easily get inside. He was right.
Violent clashes and protests over a land-grabbing disputed have taken place in the heart of the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh this week, after a development company began to bulldoze the slum homes of 300 poor families.
The destruction has prompted a wave of evictee protests at Western embassies, as victims hope to draw world attention to their plight—and perhaps inspire measures like the World Bank’s continuing freeze on loans to Cambodia, after similar government-backed evictions took place at Boueng Kak Lake in 2010 and 2011.
As bulldozers moved into the downtown slum Tuesday, enraged residents threw stones and Molotov cocktails at police, who fired back with rubber bullets: 30 protesters and 34 police were injured in the fray, while 8 protesters were taken into police custody, where they remain as of Friday.