Poor suffering in a changing Phnom Penh

Poor suffering in a changing Phnom Penh

Released in Thailand early this month, an award-winning Cambodian documentary film, Last Night I Saw You Smiling, captures the last glimpse of a vibrant residential community in Phnom Penh's iconic White Building before it was closed in 2017.

Cambodian filmmaker Kavich Neang, whose family lived in the state-subsidised apartment building, tells a story of forced eviction in fast-growing Phnom Penh where the poor have little bargaining power to claim their rights. His film shows the buzzing apartment building being gradually demolished after the government handed it over to a Japanese developer.

Featured in the film are daily conversations among residents who, as the eviction deadline approaches, worry about their future and compensation that will not be sufficient for them to buy a new place to live.

Watching this film reminds me of the first time I visited the city in 2008. I recall there were many informal settlements of low-income people dotted around the city, along with signs of emerging developments. It was like a prologue to a changing Phnom Penh, once wracked by civil war.

I was back there a few months ago and stunned to see how quickly the city has been developed with many high rises and luxury properties in the city centre. More construction activity was going on, with noise from roaring machines heard day and night. What had disappeared were the low-income communities I saw during my first visit.

Then, a Cambodian friend drove me to the outskirts of the city to show me one of the low-income, informal settlements. It was a place without water or electricity supplies.

It's clear to me that many poor people have relocated to the outskirts as a result of either forced evictions or unaffordable housing prices in the city centre.

My friend described the modernised Phnom Penh as: "A fancy district for the rich on one side of the city, and impoverished slums on the other side. The city is split into two disconnected worlds."

After the signing of peace accords in 1991, demand for commercial properties in Phnom Penh skyrocketed in the late 1990s as a result of the state's implementation of a market-driven economy and the legalisation of private ownership -- both of which were abolished under the Khmer Rouge.

According to the World Bank, the construction, real estate and tourism sectors accounted for 60% of Cambodia's total approved investment in 2018. Approved residential and commercial development projects, mainly driven by Chinese foreign direct investment, amounted to US$4.6 billion, a 14% increase from the previous year.

Growth in Cambodia's real estate sector has attracted both domestic and foreign investors. The White Building is no exception. It was built by the Cambodian government in the 1960s as housing for low-income tenants in a then underdeveloped area.

Urbanisation in the capital has brought about demand for property. And the White Building, with its prime location, became a golden opportunity for property developers. That resulted in the forced eviction of 492 families from the building.

Phnom Penh has seen a rise in forced evictions in the last decade, particularly in areas occupied by the urban poor. Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, an NGO working on urban issues, released a 2016 study detailing forced evictions in 77 sites across Phnom Penh showing the problem is far more pervasive than has been reported by the media.

Last week, authorities detained 13 residents of Phnom Penh's Borei Keila neighbourhood to stop their protests against the demolition of the apartment building in which they reside. They were among 380 families in the area who have faced forced eviction since 2012. The neighbourhood became a large-scale building project overseen by construction company Phanimex.

The evicted residents were relocated to Kandal province on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. Some complained about insufficient compensation.

Similarly, land dispute cases have been reported in Koh Kong province of southwest Cambodia -- a popular coastal destination for Chinese developers.

The Cambodian government needs to urgently strike a balance between urban development and the livelihoods of local people. Unfortunately, it is paying little attention to giving compensation to evicted families and focusing more on promoting the real estate sector.

Evicted families should be entitled to proper compensation including housing subsidies and access to educational and job opportunities.

Such measures will not just resolve conflicts that occurred during forced evictions, but also enhance human development and benefit the long-term growth of the city.

Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.

Paritta Wangkiat


Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.

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