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.
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.”
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.
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?
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.