Editor's note: This article is excerpted from "Hun Sen’s Cambodia" by Sebastian Strangio, published by Yale University Press on Nov. 25.
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The police came at dawn, with truncheons and tear gas. Roused by her grandson, Noch Chhoun barely had time to get out of her home before the fighting started and the bulldozers arrived, demolishing her house and burying her family’s possessions under an avalanche of rubble and splintered wood. “If I didn’t wake up I would have died there,” the 72-year-old said, standing outside the forlorn shack she now occupies at a resettlement site on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, a flimsy assemblage of thin wooden poles, blue tarps, and strips of corrugated iron.
On Jan. 3, 2012, Chhoun and several hundred others were violently evicted from Borei Keila, a derelict former sporting complex in central Phnom Penh. The eviction followed months of standoffs between residents, city authorities, and security guards in the pay of Phanimex, a well-connected Cambodian firm with permission to develop the site.
Eventually the police moved in, firing rubber bullets and tear gas in a bid to dislodge the defiant residents, who responded by hurling bricks and setting tires alight. When the people retreated the bulldozers came, smashing down dozens of wooden homes and leveling two concrete apartment blocks. All that remained were smoking heaps of debris, which weeping residents picked over for clothes and other belongings. “Our property was totally destroyed. We couldn’t bring anything with us,” said Chhoun, a feisty old lady in a grey singlet and floppy white fisherman’s hat.
The displaced families were then trucked 28 miles out of town, dumped in an open field, and left to fend for themselves. Another woman, Sok Saroeun, wiped away a tear as she described her arrival at the desolate resettlement site. “Before we came it was still forest here,” she told me. “The families who didn’t have tents slept under the sky.”
A year later around a hundred families still eke out an existence at a sunbaked resettlement zone known as Srah Po village. The small community sits within sight of Cambodia’s precolonial capital, Oudong, a hilltop bristling with historic stupas and spires where pilgrims pray for blessings and good fortune. Here lie the remains of long-forgotten kings, alongside ornate reliquary houses and an urn said to contain the ashes of the Buddha.
Srah Po’s own existence is far less charmed. With the assistance of foreign charities, evictees have built rudimentary homes of thatch and corrugated iron. People have planted some scrawny trees and collect water at newly dug wells — another gift from the NGOs — but they live without power, drainage, or proper toilets. Stagnant water gathers in the gutters, overflowing into rivers of mud and effluent in the monsoon season.
The biggest problem, however, is jobs. After the eviction, Phanimex officials handed out starter kits for a new life — basic building materials, small amounts of cash, and a few sacks of rice — but people had few ways of sustaining themselves beyond that. At Borei Keila, most of Srah Po’s residents had lived off the city, selling noodles or fruit in the streets or working as moto-taxi drivers. Some of the men have since returned to Phnom Penh, where they scrounge a living and send a few dollars back home. Those who remain have nothing to do but await NGO handouts and maybe sell some basic goods — dried fish, prawn snacks, slices of sour green mango — that bring them a dollar or two per day.
Vich Kimen knew better than to protest. Two weeks before the eviction of Borei Keila, he packed his things and left for the resettlement site. With the help of his children, Kimen laid down a slab of concrete, erected a roof of wood and corrugated iron, and reassembled the small barbershop he had run at Borei Keila. He installed a wooden door and painted it dark blue. Inside he decorated the walls with photos of Cambodian fashion models and a few of his own paintings: two raunchy nudes, and another of a scaly green dragon and golden garuda flapping about a burning red sun. A small Sony TV and electric fan sit on his dusty cabinet, patiently awaiting the moment when the village is hooked up to the power supply.
“They’re just for display,” he said with a wry grin. Unlike most of the other families at Srah Po who fought the eviction, Kimen was one of the few to save his possessions from the bulldozers. “I felt making demonstrations was hopeless,” he told me. “When I saw the people burn tires and try to get compensation, I knew we wouldn’t get anything.”
The story of Borei Keila is the story of Cambodia’s capital writ large. The housing complex was built in the high noon of Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s rule, to house athletes visiting for the First Asian Games of the New Emerging Forces, or GANEFO, a showcase of non-aligned solidarity that was held in Phnom Penh in late 1966. (The name Borei Keila roughly means “sports center.”) Like the nearby Olympic Stadium, a modernist masterpiece completed two years earlier, it represented the future-leaning face of Sihanouk’s Cambodia. Its buildings were clean and symmetrical, set amid landscaped grounds and broad ornamental ponds, including a light-filled cafe, a gymnasium, and eight gleaming apartment blocks capable of housing 1,000 athletes. When civil war flared up in the early 1970s and Phnom Penh swelled with refugees, the complex was appropriated for use as a field hospital. Later, in the ghost capital of the Khmer Rouge, it hosted political training sessions.
When Phnom Penh was repopulated after 1979, the old land records had disappeared and people settled wherever they could find vacant land or housing. After a few years as a police training facility, the old athletes’ village was opened up to residents. By then it was in a decrepit state, its ponds filled with muck and its flagpole-lined entrance strewn with garbage. But people happily occupied the old athletes’ apartments, modifying them to suit their needs; others erected shacks on the surrounding land. They came, like thousands of other migrants from the countryside, in search of opportunity, earning a living as market vendors and moto-taxi drivers, hairdressers and construction workers. As the years went by the homes became more permanent. They were reinforced with brick and metal sheeting, and decorated with potted plants and spirit houses. Soon enough homes and apartments at Borei Keila were being bought, sold, and rented out.
It was only a matter of time before the site attracted the attention of developers. In 2003 Phanimex, a firm owned by a wealthy businesswoman named Suy Sophan, expressed an interest in acquiring the site. As part of a widely publicized program of “slum upgrades,” Hun Sen announced that Phanimex would be granted rights to develop part of the area in exchange for building ten new apartment blocks to accommodate the 1,776 families who would be displaced.
Anyone who owned a home at Borei Keila, or had rented for at least threeyears, was eligible for a new apartment. The city trumpeted the settlement as a symbol of the government’s commitment to the urban poor; land rights activists were optimistic that the authorities recognized the need to balance development against the interests of the city’s poorest residents. But in April 2010, after constructing eight of the ten buildings, Phanimex reneged on the agreement. Suddenly 384 Borei Keila families were left without housing. Most claimed they had lived in the area since the 1990s. Some had documentation proving their ownership or residence; others didn’t, or, like Noch Chhoun’s family, lost their documents when their homes were later demolished. The city then ordered them to leave, accusing the families of building illegal “temporary shelters” in a bid to obtain free housing. When the people refused to budge, the authorities resorted to force.
There was nothing much unique about Borei Keila. Similar disputes have occurred across Phnom Penh over the past decade, as political stability and economic growth have pushed up land values and triggered a frenzied grab for inner-city real estate. Since 1999 an estimated 150,000 people have been displaced from Phnom Penh—around 11 percent of the city’s current population. According to Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, an urban issues NGO, 54 resettlement sites now dot the outskirts of the city — dumping grounds for the displaced. These scattered colonies are plagued by poor infrastructure and a lack of social services. They very often lack proper sanitation and access to clean drinking water. Few are technically in the city at all: on average, they are 20 kilometers away, in a semirural no-man’s-land far from most urban amenities. Communities that live beyond the city’s water and electricity supplies are forced to pay between 4 and 16 times more to secure these from private suppliers.
Over the past 20 years Phnom Penh has been physically and socially transformed by urban land evictions and modern developments that have replaced “informal” city settlements with all the trappings of the rising Cambodian middle class: malls, hotels, gated communities, and the sprawling villas of the wealthy. The center of the city is populated by middle-class Cambodians and expatriates. Surrounding them is an outer ring inhabited by the displaced urban poor. Along with thousands of migrants who have flooded into the city from the countryside in search of jobs in garment factories or on construction sites, they form a new proletariat consigned to the periphery of Phnom Penh’s urban revolution.
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