“The neighborhood of Dey Krahorm has never received a social land concession.”
This was the words of Cambodian Information Minister His Excellency Khieu Kanharith when I last visited him for an interview. About a week ago.
But let´s go back a little. Let´s go back to May 2003. Prime Minister Hun Sen gives a speech in which he declares his intention of upgrading 100 poor neighborhoods every year, until all of Cambodia´s urban poor has secure land tenure and full basic services. All the neighborhoods are granted a social land concession. A social land concession means that the state gives the land to the people living on it.
The promise is much needed. In 2003, the South East Asian Kingdom is only a few years away from political instability, frequent guerilla attacks and Khmer Rouge strongholds that just won´t give in.
As a consequence, there is an overwhelming amount of poor people and in addition – a high number of slum dwellers.
Many of them live in the country´s capital, Phnom Penh. The neighborhood of Dey Krahorm, the one the Minister is talking about, is a poor neighborhood just exactly in the midst of the city. This is, of course, quite fortunate for the 805 families living in the community – they can easily earn a living by driving a motorcycle taxi or sell goods on the market.
In his speech in May 2003 Prime Minister Hun Sen names four urban neighborhoods that are to be the first ones to be upgraded. Dey Krahorm is mentioned. Posters are put up in the neighborhood, informing the residents and a decree from the Council of Ministers certifies it. Ironically, most Dey Krahorm does not actually need it, because they already own the land, they live on. But nevertheless, a social land concession is a good thing to have.
And then…things take an unfortunate turn.
In 2005 suddenly a company makes its entrance in the lives of the people of Dey Krahorm. Construction company 7NG has now – without the knowledge or consent of the residents – made a deal with 35 village representatives to swap the land of Dey Krahorm for a strip of land 20 kilometers outside of the city.
Of course, one cannot sell what one does not own, so the agreement with the company is illegal and invalid. The residents are entitled, not only to remain on their land, but to have it upgraded. The Prime Minister promised them this.
There are absolutely no legal grounds to argue otherwise. None.
But then the intimidation begins.
Now the residents of Dey Krahorm experience theft, sudden fires, destruction of their property frequently. Over the next four years, this practice increases to the point where many of the villagers give up, take the meager compensation offered to them and leave. The ones that doesn´t? They get charged with trumped up charges and has to go to court so frequently, they cannot do their everyday job. They get threatened. They get beat up.
And then one day:
The excavators come.
Early in the morning January 24, 2009, the villagers are awakened by the sounds of their houses being torn down. An army of military police, police officers and company workers have sealed off the area and are aggressively beating down everyone, who steps in their way.
There is one man, who with his palms together raised in the air begs for the chance to go inside his own house and salvage a few of his belongings, while the excavator driver ignores him and carries on. A few moments later, a police officer comes with a fire extinguisher and sprays the praying man straight in his face to get him to move away.
One woman stands on top of the rubble trying to stop the excavator when she loses her balance and falls down under it. Shocked bystanders believe they just saw her die until they see her crying daughter carry her out and get her to a hospital.
In a few hours, the neighborhood is nothing but rubble. Half an hour later, then-Deputy Governor Mann Chouen holds a press conference on the site. Undistracted by the scenery behind him, and of what just happened, he congratulates the police and company workers on the operation.
Meanwhile the families from Dey Krahorm are on their way to the relocation site 20 kilometers from the city, a place they clearly and lawfully refused to move to. And no wonder. Everything out there is inadequate. In-adequate schools for the children, in-adequate hospitals too far from the residents, in-adequate sanitation, water, food…and for jobs? Well, there is a factory out there. It´s owned by the company that took their land.
So – I was in Phnom Penh to see what had happened Dey Krahorm since that day in 2009.
Nothing, really. A lot of the families had gotten a lot more complicated stories to tell now, but very few of them had gotten any better. Many were sick. Many were jobless. All were poor.
And the lucrative land of Dey Krahorm itself? There is a 7NG office there now, but I was not allowed to go in. Instead, I went up to say hello to the Minister and spokesperson for the Cambodian Government to ask him about the Dey Krahorm case. I asked him, why the Cambodian government has not kept their promise about upgrading the communities they had given social land concessions.
You already know what he answered.
“The neighborhood of Dey Krahorm has never received a social land concession.” Wish-wash.
But Mann Chouen – the then-Deputy Governor of Phnom Penh, who held the press conference on the rubble…he received a medal for his work on Dey Krahorm.
Land grabbing is the biggest problem in Cambodia today. It affects about one million people every year. According to the Cambodian Land Law of 2001, people who have been living on a strip of land for five years have the right to ownership. It also states that if land is to be used for other purposes, the residents are entitled to a “fair” compensation. A common land grabbing scenario is selling a piece of land to a foreign company, who then removes the residents living there – like they did with the people of Dey Krahorm. In 2011, the Cambodian Government sold 800,000 hectare of land to foreign companies – in 2010, this number was 200,000 hectare.
Freelance journalist based in Bangkok
Thai politics have been somewhat baffling the past two weeks. So has Cambodian politics. And as always when the two Kingdoms clash and create irrational political atmospheres, people have suffered. In this case, several people have died. But let’s start with the beginning:
About three weeks ago a Thai delegation made a field trip to the disputed temple Preah Vihear. Thailand and Cambodia have been fighting over the temple for decades and despite the temple being awarded to Cambodia in 1962 by the International Court of Justice in Haag, Thailand has never recognized the ownership. The conflict last flared up when the temple was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.
The seven delegates – including an MP and several high profiled politicians – were arrested by Cambodian border police. Shortly after, Thailand’s nationalistic People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) – also known as the yellow shirts – started a demonstration, demanding their government tighten up the policies towards Cambodia.
Actually, they demanded them tightened up quite a bit: They wanted to repeal a Memorandum of Understanding from 2000, they wanted Thailand to withdraw from the UNESCO Committee and all the Cambodians living on the Thai side of the border be expelled.
Yes. The last one was: Kick out all the Cambodians, who happen to live on what Thailand believes to be the Thai side of the border. That will settle the dispute for sure.
Anyways. That was weeks ago and things have only deterioated from there. PAD has refused to negotiate with the government and is still demonstrating in the streets, causing clogged traffic and general disturbance in the area. Of the seven arrested Thais, five were released, but in an unfortunate and provocating twist, the two remaining detainees were convicted of spying and sentenced to eight years.
The PAD immediately demanded the Government got them released. That is, of course, not possible – Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has no right to extract people, who are accused, prosecuted and convicted on Cambodian soil.
So now they demand he step down or else…
And they are not alone: The arch enemies, The United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship – the redshirts – has been gathering bigger and bigger crowds since the state of emergency was lifted in December. They have announced a mass rally this Sunday and their demand echoes the PAD’s: The Government must step down.
However, they have not arrived yet, and PM Abhisit has other concerns as well. In the South, insurgents are fighting for an independent state and that conflict has proved untamable for decades. There are almost daily reports of casualties from the three most Southern provinces of Thailand, and rogue groups of dissidents have recently taken to targeting teachers of the local schools in the area. While the conflict have been there for so long the Government has almost gotten away with just shrugging their shoulders at the on-going violence, the Teachers Unions are weighty voices and stories of attacks on schools are difficult to ignore.
Meanwhile, the Northern border is not much better: Burmese troops have since the election in Burma in November intensified their battle with the local Karen militia, making life for the hundreds of thousands of refugees in camps by the border unstable with frequent battles and intimidation.
And then, four days ago, the troops posted along the Preah Vihear border from both Cambodia and Thailand started to take out the heavy artillery. Reports of casualties vary from five (BBC) to 64 (different local media) and while many have fled the area, some of the villagers have decided to stay. And fight if necessary.
Who can blame them? As the above account reveals, it is very easy to summarize the situation without taking into account how much these situations affect the people living with the violence. The villagers have lived there for generations and their livelihoods are destroyed by the fighting, yet there are no reports on dialogue with the people in the South, North and now, East.
Of course these days the main focus is on conflict by the Preah Vihear temple, as it rightly should be – there have been armed fighting there for four days and it does not seem to end anytime soon.
But the focus is on Abhisit and whether he steps down because of it, not on how to solve it or on the people affected by it.
And then, Sunday, something happened that did not get much focus either:
Amidst the fighting a bomb blew up part of the 1100-year-old Preah Vihear temple, the temple this whole conflict is about.
Freelance journalist based in Bangkok
Preah Vihear is an unimaginably beautiful place. It is a province, but it takes it’s name after an 11th Century Khmer Temple, which towers over the landscape on a 525-metre high mountain. The temple is stunningly well-preserved – there are still carvings of dancing Apsaras, Buddha statues and stone stair cases leading up to a perhaps even more breathtaking view over unspoiled nature.
That is utterly unimportant, though.
The temple is situated right on the border in between Thailand and Cambodia,, and the two nations have been fighting over it for almost a hundred years: As unlucky as it is, the temple itself is situated on the Khmer side of the border, while the entrance of the massive temple area is on the Thai side. None of the countries will give up their rights to the temple. In 1962 the International Court of Justice in Haague awarded the temple to Cambodia. Thailand has not recognized this. That is also not important.
This is important:
In July 2008, it received UNESCO World Heritage Status. And both nations realized the economic ramifications of that.
The decision stirred up the old conflict again and caused Cambodia and Thailand to deploy soldiers on the border. Three months later, eight soldiers had lost their lives in the temple row, without anything new being added to the dispute. A bit of murmur in the respectable governments later, everything went back to normal, just only, now with soldiers with guns at the border.
These days, the conflict is flaring up once again. Cambodia has recently presented their development plan for the temple to the World Heritage Committee and Thailand fears this plan is a decoy for occupying Thai soil, including the entrance of the temple. Therefore, Thailand has opposed the development plans and is threatening to withdraw from the UN World Heritage Committee altogether.
Now, sable rattling is a move favored by both governments, so the Thai threat was met with a diplomatic: “We will NOT approve the development plan just now, we will delay it till next year” from the Committee.
A diplomatic wise move, but there is one thing Diplomacy seems to have forgotten:
There are PEOPLE living on that border!
People whose lives were suddenly changed when both governments decided to deploy heavily armed troops right where they live. And didn’t bother to make any plans on when they might pull them back – quite the opposite in fact, supported by the UN decision of stalling the Cambodian development plan. No matter how many times the gentlemen in the fancy buildings in the capital say that no orders are given and no fighting will erupt, no matter how many different cries and resultless demands of ending the conflict, it does not change the fact that having your kids play in an area where there are also guns and soldiers is a frightening thing to deal with in your everyday life.
Furthermore: Having put the conflict on hold without resolution means that different groups with strong opinions on the subject (and those are many) now have momentum to continue antagonizing each other – like the Network of Thai Patriots, who this week demanded the government push out all Cambodian people from the disputed area.
“”The government must quickly revoke all the Thai-Cambodian agreements that put Thailand at a disadvantage, expel the Cambodians from the Thai territory and fulfil former prime minister Sarit Thanarat’s desire to retain ownership of Preah Vihear temple,” Chaiwat Sinsuwong, a leader of the movement, recently stated in the Bangkok Post.
If it was not obvious before that the people who just happen to live near the temple – something that should be very lucky for them – are in a fragile and unstable situation, it is certainly becoming more and more clear now. Who in their right mind just comes right out and say something like: “Throw them out” about a specific ethnic group that has been living somewhere for generations?
The answer is: People, who have been following this conflict for years. Someone, who has forgotten the two above mentioned things and are now only focusing on coming out of the conflict with their national pride intact. Chaiwat Sinsuwong is far from the only person, who fit that description.
With no solution whatsoever in sight, these harsh demands and strange perspectives on this situation are only going to increase in craziness and frequency. While they do that, the people can do little but sit at the border and hope for some sort of intervention from somewhere.
Anya Palm is a freelance journalist and Southeast Asia expert stationed in Bangkok.