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Cambodia's Dey Krahorm villagers resist forced eviction 2005-2009
In the 1980's, after the Khmer Rouge lost control of much of Cambodia, displaced people flowed back into the capital city of Phnom Penh. Returnees created new settlements and villages when vacant housing was no longer available. One group of returnees consisted of traditional musicians looking for a central location to resume teaching their art. This group of musicians moved into the Bassac Theatre close to the Bassac and Mekong Rivers. Gradually more returnees gathered around this community and in 2005 the Dey Krahorm village consisted of an estimated 800 families.
The Khmer Rouge regime destroyed all property records and it wasn't until 2001 that a law regulating the use of land was passed by the National Assembly. Until then all land was owned by the state – the Royal Government of Cambodia. The new law recognized residents' tenure and ownership if tenure could be established for at least 5 years through secondary documentary evidence. While this approach gave legal opportunity for Cambodians to now buy and sell land the limited rule of law provided ample room for corrupt and predatory business practices.
In January 2005, 36 community representatives from the Dey Krahorm village signed an agreement to sell all of the community land to the 7NG Construction Company. In return 7NG agreed to build alternative accommodation in an area 20km outside of the capital city. On January 21, after hearing of the agreement, community residents immediately fired the representatives in protest and elected new ones. Residents complained that the actions of the original representatives were illegal and that relocating outside of the city would seriously impact their livelihood.
This action led to the longest village-led resistance in Cambodia over a land dispute.
The new community representatives immediately lobbied for the contract to be annulled and 804 families thumb-printed a petition to the Municipality of Phnom Penh. Soon after the representatives sent a letter to Sam Rainsy Party parliamentarian, Ho Vann, to advocate on their behalf to the Prime Minister, Hun Sen.
For the first year and a half the community used methods primarily consisting of mass petitions and letters of protest. By July of 2006 the community engaged in nonviolent occupation, refusing to accept the legitimacy of 7NG claims of ownership and official demands from the Municipality of Phnom Penh that villagers vacate their homes and land or risk forced eviction. A resident security guard beat community representative Sek Sarouen in response.
In August 2007, fifty families refused to participate in a lottery held by 7NG to allocate accommodation to residents. For the remainder of the year, residents submitted further petitions and filed a lawsuit against the 36 original community representatives for ‘violation of trust’ and ‘committing corruption and embezzlement’.
On August 29, 2007, the Municipality ordered armed military police, local police, and hired workers to demolish tents and shelters. Residents attempted to prevent the demolition peacefully, and the police ordered the workers to break through the community line of resistance. One villager was handcuffed for several hours. During the following two days police and workers returned, but villagers “gather[ed] in the street, waving flags and pictures of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife Bun Rany, and broadcasting Hun Sen’s speech,” further preventing any destruction of property.
By September 2007 only 280 families remained in resistance to 7NG and the Municipality, with the goal “to remain on the site, ... [or] fair and just financial compensation for their property [market rate].” Many left because of the ongoing intimidation; several representatives were arrested and jailed for one year.
Between 2007 and 2009 the 7NG company made offers of cash compensation to villagers. Initially the offers were very low (about $200 per square meter, where market rates were reaching $2000/sqm). The alternative offer was to take land in a relocation site well outside the city, far from jobs and with no services such as health, sanitation, clean water, and education. Residents who took the relocation offer later found out that the new land was under dispute, also, and many of them suffered a further eviction to an even more distant location.
As time went on, the company shifted tactics by offering differing amounts of cash compensation to different residents. High profile traditional musicians were offered the highest amount of cash compensation, to avoid a public relations disaster. Community representatives also received significant offers in the hope that enticing them out of the community would eliminate resistance. The cumulative effect of this approach was “divide and conquer” so that residents began to fight amongst themselves over who was offered what amount of compensation. The internal cohesion of the community was seriously weakened.
Many community residents left Dey Krahorm on the basis on the promise of compensation; however, once they moved from their home many claimed that 7NG did not pay the agreed amounts. Others left because of the constant pressure of direct attacks from company workers, and the consistent threat of a forced eviction at any time.
On December 10, 2007, International Human Rights Day, representatives organised a mass protest with participation from the Dey Krahorm residents and other at-risk urban communities, forming a human chain around the perimeter of the village. Local and international human rights organisations participated, as did the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights, Yash Ghai, and US Ambassador, Joseph Mussomeli.
In the following days 7NG workers attempted to construct fencing around the Dey Krahorm village to effectively cut off the village from daily activities, such as going to and from work, school, or the market. Villagers, emboldened by the December 10 solidarity action, continued to use human chains as a method to prevent workers from erecting fencing. This was seen as a strategic fight as any fence erected could not be torn down without risk of arrest and possible imprisonment. Throughout the remainder of December, workers from 7NG arrived daily to erect fencing, and each day villagers resisted and repelled the workers. 7NG workers carrying large fence posts and heavy mallets at times threatened violence. Despite the representatives' goal of nonviolence, youth from Dey Krahorm spontaneously retaliated by throwing items, including bags of water laced with chili sauce, bags filled with urine, rocks, and rubble at the workers. No one was injured.
Expatriates from international human rights organisations and the Christians for Social Justice network acted as human rights observers during the daily clashes. On several occasions the observers slept in the community because of concerns that a forced eviction was imminent. This use of third party nonviolent intervention provided community residents with a visible reminder of international support, and enabled key community leaders to take time for rest. Additionally, this method communicated to the 7NG company that their actions were being monitored and recorded. Many international journalists and videographers spent time in the community documenting the campaign from the villagers' perspective. By early January 2008, 7NG no longer attempted open confrontations with Dey Krahorm; however, 7NG did send in small groups of workers to verbally intimidate key community representatives and residents involved in the resistance.
In October 2008, 7NG attempted to demolish a community arts facility with an excavator. The community held a “musical resistance concert” inviting residents and allies to participate. A local youth hip-hop dance group performed.
During the entirety of the campaign the Municipality of Phnom Penh and the 7NG company made frequent public statements designed to reduce public sympathy for the community, describing the community as a squatter village, as living on the road, unsanitary, drug users and prostitutes They also promoted the perception that residents had moved to the area simply for the compensation they hoped to receive.
Offers of financial compensation were consistently well under the land's market value. By the end of 2008 selected residents were offered $15,000 for their homes (market value should have reached $40,000 or more). This presented a problem. For many, this was more than residents could expect to see in a single lump sum; however, it was far below the cost of comparable housing in the city. Again, the public perception that the community was asking for unreasonable amounts of compensation, created a PR problem for Dey Krahorm residents.
In mid-January 2009, human rights organisations learned of rumors of military police movement and build up in the city, a possible precursor to a forced eviction. Ten international observers entered the community on January 23rd to ensure an external presence in the case of an actual forced eviction with the goal to document the eviction and to apply pressure on the Municipality to refrain from using violence against residents.
Hundreds of military police, riot police, and “breakers” (workers hired for the purpose of demolishing buildings and homes, many of whom were from formerly evicted communities) entered Dey Krahorm on January 24, 2009. Riot police used tear gas to disperse crowds of residents and effective resistance ended quickly. Excavators, bulldozers, and the “breakers” systematically demolished all remaining homes in the village.
By this time the resistance of Dey Krahorm villagers was well known in Cambodia. After four years of persistence, local and international media continued to follow the story and many activists from other communities were either supporting the resistance or learning from it. Many other urban communities, such as Boueng Kak Lake, were resisting their own possible forced evictions. Boueng Kak Lake residents have forced concrete concessions from the Shukaku Inc. In 2011, former Dey Krahorm community residents organised to successfully boycott a prominent annual soccer tournament featuring Cambodian and Vietnamese teams. Dey Krahorm activists continued to support ongoing campaigns in Phnom Penh and other locations in the country, including the Chi Kreng community in Siem Reap.