By Sopheap Chak,

Published on UPI Asia Online

Niigata, Japan — The problem of forced evictions and land grabs is growing worse in Cambodia, leading to violence due to deep dissatisfaction over existing resettlement schemes. Some 133,000 residents of Phnom Penh, or 11 percent of the city’s population of 1.2 million, have been evicted since 1990.

According to Amnesty International, there were 27 instances of forced urban evictions reported in 2008, affecting some 23,000 people. A further 150,000 are currently at risk of eviction, including approximately 70,000 in Phnom Penh.

Amnesty International reported that several urban communities had been evicted from their homes and relocated to areas that lacked the most basic infrastructure. Other communities facing eviction orders are crying out for legal and humanitarian support from the government and civil society groups.

This phenomenon is not unique to Cambodia; it occurs in both developed and developing countries where poor communities or informal settlements and slums are often targeted. People are evicted to make way for development and infrastructure projects, large international events like the Olympic games and urban redevelopment and beautification initiatives. Sometimes political conflict, ethnic cleansing and war are factors. However, “development” is the most common justification in all countries, including Cambodia.

Surprisingly, almost all regions have experienced forced evictions including Africa, Europe, the Americas and the Asia-Pacific region. According to a global survey by the Center on Housing Rights and Evictions, covering 80 countries from 1998 to 2008, more than 18 million people were victims of forced evictions. Of this number, 47 percent occurred in Asia and the Pacific, followed by 44 percent in Africa, 8 percent in the Americas and 1 percent in Europe. The data showed that nearly 2 million people face eviction annually.

Cambodia ranks first among Asian countries in the number of evictions. These occur because of five key factors: 1) illegal construction and occupation of the land; 2) city development and beautification; 3) property market forces, gentrification and private development; 4) the granting of economic land concessions; and 5) the granting of social land concessions.

While the government justifies evictions for the sake of beautifying and developing the cities, there are many eviction cases where violence and legal abuses have occurred while little or no actual development has taken place. Strikingly, most of the areas that have been cleared to make way for development projects have been turned over to private companies owned or chaired by high-ranking officials and affiliated powerful businessmen.

Many areas cleared for the sake of “development” are yet to be developed. For example, the Sombok Chap area, from which more than 6,000 people were evicted in 2006, is still undeveloped. The same is true of the Monivong Hospital site, from which 168 families were forcibly evicted to make way for commercial development. This area is now being used for a parking lot and carwash.

There have been a few model resettlement cases, like that of Veng Sreng, where people were given enough time and allowed to choose their place of relocation. In this case there was close collaboration among the authorities, the community and local and international organizations in planning and coordinating a resettlement scheme. This positive approach meets the needs of the people and the government, while addressing the government poverty reduction program and advancing the millennium development goals.

In cases where the government urgently needs an area for development or investment projects, this model should be applied so that human security risks are avoided. The government’s current pursuit of development has often brought legal abuses and violations of peoples’ rights and produced little or no actual development. Thus it is important that the government reevaluate its development criteria.

Different people may define development differently. In traditional economic terms, it is strictly based on the capacity of a national economy valued in terms of gross national product. However, development as introduced by Michael. Todaro and Stepen C. Smith must “represent the whole gamut of change by which an entire social system, tuned to the diverse basic needs and desires of individuals and social groups within that system, moves away from a condition of life widely perceived as unsatisfactory toward a situation or condition of life regarded as materially and spiritually better.”

This concept includes three basic components of development: 1) Sustenance, or meeting basic needs including food, shelter, health and protection; 2) Self-esteem, or a sense of worth and self-respect; and 3) Freedom from servitude, including access to choices with minimal external constraints.

Based on these criteria, development must bring about certain goals. It must increase sustenance or life-sustaining goods including food, shelter, health and protection. It must raise living standards including the provision of more jobs, better education and greater attention to cultural and human values, contributing to greater individual and national self-esteem. And it must expand the range of economic and social choices.

In this context, the Cambodian and other governments that justify forced evictions for the sake of “national development” must reevaluate their development agenda in order to faithfully address the core values and objectives of development.

(Chak Sopheap is a graduate student of peace studies at the International University of Japan. She runs a blog, www.sopheapfocus.com, in which she shares her impressions of both Japan and her homeland, Cambodia. She was previously advocacy officer of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. ©Copyright Chak Sopheap.)