At present more than 250,000 people in Cambodia live under threat of forced evictions, land grabbing and land disputes. The premier Hun Sen has granted concessions for more than one third of the country’s most profitable land for commercial development by private companies. In the cities there has been a wave of speculative land grabbing fuelled by inflated property prices and an economic growth rate of over 10%. ‘Beautification’ projects, and more general ‘development’ projects, are forcing the urban poor back into the countryside.
Foreign hedge fund managers, Cambodian business tycoons, ruling party senators and military officers are all grabbing land at a rate never seen before. The country is up for sale. And while the poor are being thrown from the land that is rightfully theirs, the ruling elite plunder and loot in the name of development and economic progress.
This sporadic surge in property development is often to accommodate the steadily increasing number of tourists now visiting Cambodia; vast beach resorts, casinos, western style shopping malls and huge luxury hotels are drastically changing the countries landscape, new buildings are being built at a phenomenal rate.
In Phnom Penh the Boeung Kak lake is being filled with sand to make way for a $79 million commercial development. Once completed this will constitute the largest forced eviction in Cambodia since the Khmer Rouge evacuated Phnom Penh in 1975.
A young man builds a makeshift shelter after being forcibly evicted from his home at Boeung Kak Lake, Phnom Penh. © Chris Kelly 2010.
Those opposing the evictions face false imprisonment, intimidation, violence and even death at the hands of police, corrupt government officials, court judges, the military and construction workers. Those who are relocated to purpose built towns on the outskirts of Phnom Penh face improper sanitation, no electricity or running water and no prospects for work or education. These new slums are so far from the city centre that it costs more than an entire day’s wage just to travel there and back.
The Boeung Kak lake developer, Shukaku Inc, backed by Chinese investors, is a subsidiary of Pheapimex, a company owned by Lao Meng Khin, a powerful CPP Senator who personally holds Economic Land Concessions totalling more than 7.5% of the countries land mass.
These concessions are fuelling Cambodia’s natural resource curse, a phenomenon that often plagues resource rich developing nations, not because of the resources themselves but because of the corruption and kleptocracy of their governments, a lack of transparency between government and private companies, and the failure (or non existence) of democracy. Cambodia is said to have enough oil, gas and mineral reserves to lift the entire country out of poverty if managed properly. This is a story that is heard all over the developing world, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, to Angola, to Bolivia. The plundering of these natural resources is just a continuation of what went on during the Khmer Rouge times, it began with the gems, salt mines and illegal logging, today it is urban development, hydro-electric dams, rubber and cassava plantations and mining concessions. Often it is being perpetrated by the very same Khmer Rouge cadres, now high-ranking government officials or Military leaders.
A young girl stands in the doorway of her home that will soon be destroyed as part of the forced eviction of more than 20,000 people at Boeung Kak Lake, Phnom Penh. © Chris Kelly 2010.
Our western donor countries, who continue to prop up this corrupt autocracy, funded more than 40% of the national budget in donor aid last year, and they continue to remain silent, failing to hold to account a government that is a complicit benefactor in the forced evictions of its own people.
In some cases the World bank has been complicit in forced evictions or supporting governments that carry them out, in Cambodia they conveniently missed out the Boeung Kak lake when they carried out their LMAP land titling program that was meant to secure legal land tenure for millions of Cambodians but which in most cases avoided the sites that were most vulnerable or under threat of eviction.
Most alarmingly of all, in 2006 Hun Sen granted permission for The China Southern Power Grid Company to prepare a feasibility study for a US$5 billion hydroelectric dam in Kratie province. Up to 70% of the electricity produced would feed the industrial sector in neighbouring Vietnam, while as much as US$9 billion or more could be lost in annual fishing revenues, fish that provide as many as 60 million people up to 80% of their animal protein.
Without a moratorium on dam construction the socioeconomic and environmental impact could be devastating, and there are suggestions that such projects could jeopardise the peace and stability of the entire region, with growing concerns about climate change, such food and revenue shortages could lead to national conflicts.
A man sells his wares at the Boeung Kak Lake. Residents are being forcibly evicted to make way for a $79 million development by local company Shukaku Inc. © Chris Kelly 2010.
As Cambodia emerges onto the world’s economic map, struggling to escape its history of poverty and oppression under the Khmer Rouge regime, it is failing to protect the human rights of its own people. The echoes of what Joseph Conrad called the ‘vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience’ and exploitation by white colonialists he found in the Congo can be found in Cambodia today, only now it is more complex, more contradictory; it is the country’s own leaders and wealthy businessmen who are leading the scramble.
And what effect will these mass displacements and evictions have on the country’s economic development? In 2007 for the first time in human history, more people lived in cities than in the countryside. These people are a vital feature of growing economies and by 2030 over 2 billion will live in informal urban settlements all over the developing world, in cities like Phnom Penh. A wave of humanity this large cannot be excluded forever, and the future of the developing world may depend on whether these cities can make peace with the slums in their midst.