Weird Wednesday in Phnom Penh: 4 Villagers Shot, 22 Escape Detention Center

Squalid relocation center at Phnom Bat.

The news cycle got weirder yesterday, as 22 Borei Keila evictees made an escape from an Orwellian “social affairs” center after a visit from Mu Sochua, and 4 protesting villagers near Snoul were shot in cold blood by hired security hands.

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.

Borei Keila kids playing riot police with one another.

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.

Borei Keila evictee at Phnom Bat.

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.

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.

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.