Borei Keila Evictees Shunted Aside to Inhumane Refugee Camp

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.

On Thursday, 24 women and children were detained by authorities and sent to the Prey Speu Social Affairs Center—a center deemed “nothing more than an extra-judicial detention facility” in a statement released jointly by 10 human rights NGOs operating in the Kingdom.

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.

Borei Keila: Phan Imex Chief Calls Evictees “Greedy Cheaters”

What was left of Borei Keila as of last Friday.

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.

Phnom Penh Municipality Defends Beating Up Own Citizens, Could Hire Better Copy-Writer

The Phnom Penh Municipality put up a post Sunday defending last Tuesday’s violent evictions of residents of the Borei Keila slum neighborhood – evictions where 30 villagers and 34 officers were injured in the ensuing fray.

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.

I watched these kids play a rousing game of Riot Police Against Villagers the other day. Nicely done, Phnom Penh.

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.

Apartment Complex Tear-Downs at Borei Keila Land Grab Site in Phnom Penh

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.

UN Dispatch Latest: Why Victims of Borei Keila Land Grabs are Protesting at US Embassy

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.

Read more at UN Dispatch…

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.

Indian Delight: Best Damn Indian Food in Cambodia

Indian Delight
115e0, Sisowath Quay
023 724 885
Phnom Penh
 I’m an Indian food snob. I lived in Bangalore for six months back in 2008 and went back in 2010: I’m no fan of the uber-heavy, cream-rich Muhgali food that’s favored outside the Subcontinent. However, I was very happy to discover India Delight on Sisowath Quay, which turns out Indian food much closer to the non-coronary-inducing masalas and curries I remember from India. They even pay attention when you ask for your food spicy. Furthermore, there isn’t a heady layer of grease hanging over everything you order.
I find chicken tikka masala way too rich the way most places make it, but Indian Delight’s version is just about akin to crack for me. You know what this stuff is (hint: it was invented in Britain) but I’ll describe it again: pieces of roasted tandoori chicken cooked in a very spicy, slightly creamy sauce with a profusion of fresh spices. This is definitely the tastiest tikka masala I’ve had – hell, ever, I think – and it’s only $5.00. I sometimes wish I could just eat this for lunch every day. It’s especially good with the yellow rice peas pulao they serve here, which has a bit of saffron in it.
There’s also a rich version of vindaloo, the Portugese-inspired Goa dish of curried chicken with plenty of vinegar and meat, as well as potatoes. My boyfriend is rather fond of the stuff and orders it regularly. I haven’t ordered it myself – the tikka masala has its siren song – but it is decent stuff.

Rahu Phnom Penh: I Forgot I Kinda Like Hipster Sushi

Sisowath Quay
10 Sisowath Quay
Tel: 023 215 179
Hipster sushi makes up roughly 80% of the diets of Northern Californians, and I’m pleased to announce that Phnom Penh now has an entry into the field. Restaurant chain Metro has opened a sushi outpost next to Harem Shisha Bar and the Riverhouse Lounge, with sushi and Japanese specialities added on to the standard Metro menu.
The dark, moody, and aggressively hip decor – yes, I’ll mention the Angry Monk Kid painting in the back corner, let’s stop talking about it now – is set off by extremely attractive and somewhat attentive wait-staff. Where Rahu really shines is after 11:00 PM, when the sushi menu is discounted by 50%. In fact, I’ve never actually eaten at Rahu before the discount hit.
In a city where late-night food can be limited—if you’re not brave enough to risk food stalls and gastrointestinal ruin—this late night sushi can be something of a blessing, especially if you’re not really that into greasy hangover prevention chow. Rolls top out at around $5 and most are in the $3.50 area. It’s a pretty good deal for the tastiest sushi I’ve had in town. The menu is not particularly extensive, but all the bases are covered, with sushi rolls, sashimi, and some other Japanese classics on offer.
The spicy salmon rolls are my favorite here. The legitimately spicy salmon interior is wrapped in rice which is studded with small, crispy tempura bits. It’s finished with a not-excessive drizzle of wasabi mayo and is really a pretty perfect light meal or late-night snack. I used to bitch about California sushi’s obsession with sauces, but now I miss them. I miss them a lot.