Protesters Sit-In Outside US Embassy for 2nd Day Over Borei Keila Land Grab

Remains of Borei Keila. Police have been posted at all entrances to keep out both journalists and NGO workers. 

Cambodian protesters sat-in outside the US Embassy for a 2nd day today, in a last-ditch attempt to draw international attention to their sudden and whole-sale eviction from their home in the Borei Keila slum. Mostly poor migrants, the protesters sat outside the grass of the Embassy from 8 in the morning until noon, surrounded by a throng of police officers, RCAF, human rights advocates and press.

Evictees were more than eager to share their stories with hovering human rights investigators and journalists, telling stories of their fear, sadness, and anger over the loss of their homes.

One woman described how bulldozers knocked over her home while she was still in it, showing us the scar on her face. She was forced to crawl out of the debris, and made it out just before a coconut tree completely crushed the structure.

“We thought we were dead…we could not get anything out of the house,” she said. “This is all I have—a krama (a Cambodian scarf) and some dirty clothes.”

Many protesters were clutching small bags of possessions, all they had been able to scrounge from their flattened homes. “I would like to beg for help,” she said. “Just give me some money, and I will leave.”

Evictees told NGO representatives and reporters that the Phanimex development company had pulled a bait and switch on them, telling them to submit ownership documents so they could be adequately compensated for their land.

Although they submitted the documents, their homes were crushed anyway—and these 300 families were told that they did not own their land, and were therefore not eligible for compensation.

Woman displays documents proving her title to her Borei Keila home.

The protesters waved parcels of family books, election papers, and medical papers in the faces of anyone who would look.

Protesters told us that some Borei Keila evictees took a company deal that would provide them with another patch of land. Instead, they were driven out on a truck onto a hot and barren spot of earth with nothing on it, and were given 200,000 riel, equivalent to $50. They were told that it would take “maybe a week and a half” for the land to be split into equal parcels.

As evictees had expected to be put up in alternate apartment housing, or at least compensated, this was by no means what they had expected. We were told the company had informed protesters that they would now get nothing since they did not take Phanimex’s exceptionally meager settlement.

Boeng Kak Lake evictee representatives arrived on the scene soon after the Borei Keila contingent arrived. They decided they would lend their own harsh experience and protest know-how to their newly evicted comrades.

Boeng Kak Lake evictee Kun Chantha fires up the crowd. 

Solidarity was the name of the game, as vocal BKL evictee Kun Chantha fired up the crowd, instructing them not to give in, not to surrender, and not to lie down. “If they kill a 1000 of us, there will be 100,000 more,” she shouted. “I want you to go back and and ask the company what else do they want from you.

“Take off our clothes and give them to them. Even offer them your life. If you are naked, you shouldn’t be ashamed. The people who should be ashamed are the government.”

Mu Sochua talks to RCAF officers.

SRP representative and human rights lawyers Mu Sochua was on the scene, as was Licadho chairwoman Kek Galabru also put in appearances, instructing the crowd on protest tactics and engaging in tense discussions with police officers.

Police on the scene seemed rather relaxed, but watched the Boeng Kak Lake evictees with special interest – they knew exactly who they were. An elderly Borei Keila woman verbally harunaged a RCAF officer for laughing about something or another at the protest site.

“Why are you laughing while we are crying?” she shouted, as the officer awkwardly took temporary refuge behind a compatriot.

Police later told the protesters that it was very hot outside, and it would be better if they move to the shade of Wat Phnom for their own good. The protesters were curiously unmoved.

Borei Keila evictees submit a petition to the US Embassy.

A petition was drawn up and the Borei Keila evictees thumbprinted it. After some negotiation, they were allowed to present the petition to the US Embassy. They did not get the audience with the US Ambassador they were hoping for, nor did the US send out any representatives that myself and my Cambodian friend Alex could ID.

The only voices from the US corner were those of security guards telling people to move their motorbikes away from the street directly bordering the Embassy. (One secret police officer had his bike taken away for parking in the exact same spot. His cover was promptly blown as he ran shouting after the truck).

When I left around noon, the protesters planned to submit petitions to the nearby French and British Embassies, hoping to get some sort of international pushback regarding their case.

Unfortunately, many of the Borei Keila evictees will be forced onto the streets, with nowhere else to go and no resources to find alternate housing. And fighting back, as they have been doing, is dangerous.

Last night, a small number of protesters were arrested as they returned to the remains of Borei Keila, unable to find anywhere else to sleep in the city. According to the Phnom Penh Post, one of the eight arrested has been charged with both intentional violence and the obstruction of public officials.

If this is a Cambodian government attempt to clean up the slums and improve the appearance of the city, forcing even more of the urban poor onto the streets is an exceptionally poor tactics.

Will the USA, Britain, France, or other democractic nations with a presence in Cambodia step up and speak on behalf of the Borei Keila evictees?

Evictee tells her story to Licadho chief Kek Galeru.

We all know the World Bank halted funding to Cambodia in part over the Boeng Kak Lake debacle, prompting Prime Minister Hun Sen to make some positive steps towards reimbursing evictees for the land they lost. International pressure, applied properly, can go a long way.

“Only the poor help the poor,” one protester said. “The rich and powerful would never dare to come here.”

Do we as self-proclaimed advocates of world democracy really want to prove this Cambodian woman right?

MUCH thanks to Alex Higgins for providing excellent translation help! Couldn’t have got these quotes otherwise.

Borei Keila Evictees Protest Egregious Land Grab Outside US Embassy

Edited to add: My excellent Cambodian source says protesters were arrested late tonight (the 4th) after returning to the remains of Borei Keila. No word yet on how many were arrested. Waiting until protesters were out of range of the US Embassy and after most press activity had knocked off for the night seems to be the tactic of choice.

Protesters evicted from the Borei Keila community yesterday staged a protest in front of the US Embassy here in Phnom Penh tonight. Hoping to attract US attention to their plight, around 70 protesters, joined by activist and lawyer Mu Sochua, staged a sit-in outside the Embassy, hoping to set up for the night on the grassy median outside. It wasn’t like they had anywhere else to go.

Around 300 families—most poor migrant workers—were not provided for by the Phanimex development company which purchased the land Borei Keila sat on until Tuesday afternoon. Cops moved in Tuesday morning and were met with intense resistance – including stones, Molotov cocktails, and fists – by residents.

Allegedly because residents were acting out, police moved in and bulldozed every home in Borei Keila, without giving anybody a chance to get their things out of their homes. 300 families suddenly found themselves without anywhere to go, and decided to make for the US Embassy as a last-ditch effort to draw some attention to their cause.

I met incensed women this evening, claiming that their and their friends posessions had been crushed by police bulldozers.

“I think they are trying to kill us with starvation,” one woman said, referring to what appear to be government efforts to keep NGOs with food assistance out of the Borei Keila area.

The same woman noted that the company had asked her for $3,000 to be moved into the supposedly “free” company-provided housing. “I have lived in Borei Keila since I was young, and now I am old,” she said. “The government says if you live on land for long enough it belongs to you, but they have evicted me.”

Over 100 rather nervy cops in full riot gear appeared at the protest, and soon enough a loudspeaker truck with a bunch of young men in blue pulled up. Everyone was ordered out by the  chief of Daun Penh district, who threatened to use administrative action if his orders weren’t heeded.

After 8 arrests of Borei Keila residents yesterday, villagers decided not to stick around and moved off, carrying small children, mats, and whatever possessions they had managed to scrounge from their former homes. They moved off down Russian Boulevard, followed by police for a short period.

They said they were heading back to Borei Keila, although the walled-off site is now nothing but an unwelcoming field of hacked-up tile and dirt, guarded by police officers.

Where are they going? Staying with friends, sleeping outside, wedging themselves into the greater mass of Phnom Penh. We don’t really know at this point.

They are yet more victims of the impunity with which land-grabbing Cambodian companies are allowed to operate. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve lived on the land, or if you have title to it. A major developer can still take it right out from under your feet.

Cambodia, this is not the way to attract foreign investment.

So I Came Back From Vietnam Early

Awkward souvenirs at War Remnants Museum. 

Vietnam turned out to be pretty much a wash.

Turns out I have some sort of weird persistent chest infection. This makes doing things I really like doing on trips – such as trekking and more simple pursuits like walking – considerably more complicated than they ought to be.

Furthermore, I can’t say we were having a great time.

Saigon is….Saigon and while Da Lat is pretty and all, my being unable to breathe like people sort of hampered my entertainment opportunities in an outdoors sports hub.

I in fact discovered my respiratory infection was worse than I had thought upon attempting a not-inexpensive nature trek to the top of a mountain outside Da Lat, which ended in me wheezing in profound surprise, horror, and embarrassment about a 1/2 mile into the trek. We had to go home. Goodbye, $66. I’ll miss you.

I should add that as an ardent food type, I was somewhat surprised by how hard it was to find good food in Vietnam, even after doing quite a bit of prior online research.

Bridge in Da Lat. Pretty place. Cool weather, too.

I did enjoy some delicious banh khot in Da Lat, some surprisingly good sushi, and liked (if not loved) Cuch Gach Quan, perhaps Saigoin’s finest example of Hipster Folk Cuisine. Every city’s gotta have one.

I suspect that next time I go to Saigon, I need to borrow a local food expert to walk me around. (Who wants to volunteer?!)

I’d go back to Vietnam, but I think I’d do it only if I could afford to make at least a couple of inter-country flights. Still want to see Ha Long Bay and Hue. Suspect having more funds would make this more pleasant. Well, and fully functioning lungs, can’t forget those.

Another addendum: Really Really Tall People should not put Vietnam at the top of their list of potential tourist destinations. 10 inch stools for street food and lots of long, bumpy bus trips, you can figure it out. And constant staring. Lots of staring.

Sometimes I feel like I am becoming a Cambodian nationalist. I attribute this to a latent case of under-dog syndrome. Also, while Phnom Penh may be, in most indelicate terms, a bit of a shit-hole, it is MY shit-hole.

This makes sense. I feel the same way about New Orleans. It’s a dirty violent place but it is MY violent dirty place, dammit. Don’t speak bad about it or I’ma break yo face.

More blog posts about Vietnam to follow.