There are always two sides to a story – Dey Kraham is no exception. So far we have heard from the dwellers there, Licadho, various other organizations, political parties, and whoever felt the need to speak out. The outcry and the outrage resonated beyond Cambodia. Nobody ever felt it necessary to interview the other side, the owner of the land. Of course, this is not easy to accomplish, as the owner is a very publicity shy person who does not enjoy being in the spotlight. He does not give interviews, as he knows he will be lambasted at every turn. Incidentally, this man was once just as poor as the people who squat on his land.
Sure enough, Sam Rainy, who is widely seen as the advocate for the poor people, eagerly takes advantage of such situations to enhance his profile and reputation as their guardian.
What has also been missing in the widespread reports is a certain degree of objectivity and fact-finding. Most reports were focused on the apparent injustice inflicted upon people who were seemingly unjustly evicted from their dwellings, as ramshackle, dirty, unkempt, and unsanitary as they were.
This article does not condone any unjust, unjustified, and haphazardly unlawful evictions. In developed countries the government will render assistance to poor people as much as they can in any given circumstance. It is a given assumption that the rule of law applies in the developed world.
People always call for the rule of law in Cambodia, where it more often than not is disregarded, to say the least. But the rule of law applies to everyone, even poor people. Humanitarian aspects and governing law unfortunately do not always coincide.
Has anyone ever asked how those people got to live there? Or how those people gained legal ownership of the land they so vehemently defended? There were about 2050 families living in the area in what is commonly called a slum - unsanitary, subhuman conditions by any standard. Most of these people had come from rural areas to Phnom Penh to find some kind of work. It is a fact that quite a few of them were engaged in begging as their only source of income. It is also known that many young girls from there were earning their livelihood as prostitutes plying their trade at the low end of the spectrum as street walkers offering their services for as little as 5,000 riel. The area is also rife with drugs, thieves, and other assorted criminals.
The vast majority of these people had lived in Dey Kraham less than 5, even often less than 2 or 1 years. Not one family in Dey Kraham had any title to the land they occupied; in other words, they had no legal claim to the land. They had not paid any rent to the city or, after it had been sold about 3 years ago, to the rightful owner. The city government tolerated their presence there, as it plainly had no idea what to do with them. The owner also tolerated their presence for some time as he was engaged in different real estate projects outside of Phnom Penh.
In order to develop the site he also needed to line up funding for it, which, despite the current boom, is a time-consuming task. So when he got ready for the development he offered the people money to move, ranging from $200 to $1000. Since the people had no obvious place of employment in Phnom Penh, they were free to go wherever they wanted.
It is said this compensation is a pittance compared to the land prices of $4000/m2 the owner would be able to obtain. Yes, it is a pittance, but as in any free society, if you own something you have the right to use it the way you see fit, but within certain legally prescribed parameters, such as zoning ordinances. The poor people, as sad as it may be and as harsh as it may sound, did not own the land so they were in no position to ask for any money to begin with.
Again, in the developed world the government is expected to step in and provide at least temporary shelter. But even there, it is often difficult and people end up being homeless. The U. S. and Europe are shining examples of the public sector’s failure to extend assistance to the entire population. One must recognize that there are natural limits to what a government can do.
But organizations such as Licadho, as important a role as they play as a watchdog over human rights, whenever they cry foul, they encourage a certain element to protest and demand things they clearly are not entitled to.
As a result 50 or so families remain in Dey Kraham who cannot be moved because of the public outcry. They do not own the land; have not gained ownership by possession (having occupied the land for a minimum of 5 years), nor do they have the right to live there.
The ringleaders of these 50 families have been identified as rabble-rousers who made it their calling to protest and basically extort money from either government or owners. Roughly 2000 families took the money and moved because they saw the situation as it was, not what they wanted it to be, as those crooks who shamelessly utilize those human rights organizations and are able to hitch Sam Rainsy before their cart and to be their mouthpiece. Those ringleaders are known to travel from one hotspot to the next following the same pattern.
The only people with an apparent claim to ownership are the ones living in the dirty, gray apartment building nearby, or as the Khmer call it, Boding. This building has become synonymous with prostitution and crime. You ask one of the countless free-lance taxi drivers for an address for the cheapest sex in town, and he will always take you to Boding. This building houses the lowest elements of Phnom Penh’s population. But the periodical counts by the Sangkat put most those people down as having lived there for longer than 5 years. Some took possession of apartments in the building as far back as at the end of the Pol Pot era and neither the Vietnamese nor the subsequent Cambodian governments did anything about it, some came just before the elections in 1993. The owners of those apartments make a tidy living off both petty and hardened criminals and the prostitutes they rent space to.
Legally, the land this building is on also belongs to the owner of Dey Kraham, which makes for an even more complicated situation, compounding the problems. The owners of those apartments ask as much as $50,000 for a 40 m2 apartment. Multiply that by 100 and one knows how much money is at stake here. The owner estimates he would have to shell out about $3,000,000 initially just to be able to start the process. He simply does not have the money for that. This is why that eyesore of a building is still there.
In short, the situation is a mess. Right now, the government does not have the money to move those people to another place, and the owner is not able to compensate the rest or move the illegal squatters.
Now, some people might say if the greedy government officials weren’t on the take the way they are there would be money enough to provide shelter for those people. Maybe, maybe not. But the situation as it is now is not good for the poor people, not good for the owner, and not good for the government. The status quo is a roadblock to the development of what would normally be a showcase of Phnom Penh, what with the otherwise nice surroundings.
Yes, human rights organizations say that development cannot be carried out on the backs of the poor people, but Cambodia must develop in order to survive in a competitive economic environment with its neighboring countries. This often entails people getting rich because of it, as it did in the developed world too. Think of the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts.
We must stop trying to impose our way of thinking, our concepts, and our basic philosophies on other cultures. This also happens to be one of Sam Rainsy’s greatest flaws. It would be wiser for him to work within the system to try to change it rather than just voice criticism.
This has boomeranged and led to many a bloodbath in the past. The West has gone through more than 250 years of mental development in order arrive at the kind of maturity and respect for human rights people now enjoy. We must give countries like Cambodia more time to come to grips with the many, very difficult facets of post-Communist live. 15 years might seem like a long time, but these things take at least 2 generations to change.