By Beaumont Smith and Julie Masis
VIENTIANE and PHNOM PENH – As Asian and European leaders gather for high-level meetings this month in Cambodia and Laos, the luxury living quarters and extensive security arrangements made for their arrivals have come at considerable human and environmental expense.
Government authorities went on a building spree ahead of this week’s 9th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Summit being held in the Lao capital, a process that entailed forced evictions of local communities to pave the way for the meeting’s modern facilities.
While leaders pay lip service to various problems facing the globe, among them food security, most of them are likely unaware that the buildings in which they are being hosted and housed haverendered many capital dwellers homeless and without livelihoods.
New luxury villas for the ASEM meeting were built on Vientiane’s Don Chan island, a once lush area of the capital where communities grew their own food along the Mekong River. The wider development, which began in 2002 and includes the 14-story Don Chan Palace hotel, has been led by the local Krittaphong Group in a joint venture with China’s CAMC Engineering.
Officials have defended the project as necessary for the country’s tourism development and ability to host high level meetings like this week’s ASEM-9 confab. (The Don Chan Palace hotel was refurbished specifically for ASEM-9 functions.) Company statements of the wider “New World Development” scheme at Don Chan have promised to “bring Hong Kong to the banks of the Mekong”.
The estimated 300 families who were evicted from their land see things differently. Because the communist government legally owns all land in Laos, residents lacked title deeds despite living in the area for generations. “We were not paid for our land. Many of us did not have titles as we had always lived there. We did not need titles as we knew each other’s land,” said Pham, a pseudonym, who was born and raised in Don Chan.
Residents like Pham recall the 10-hectare island previously served as one large market garden that supplied fresh vegetables to the capital. The community was also popular with travelers looking for a break from temple tours or seeking authenticity.
“I was here a few years ago, and I was really impressed by Don Chan. Few cities can boast they grow food right in the city,” said Father Bennet, a Jesuit environmental expert, and regular visitor to the Mekong region.
The official excuse to seize the lands used for the new ASEM luxury villas is the same they used ahead of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting held in Vientiane in 2004 – that the lands were needed to accommodate VIP delegates in five star tourist accommodations.
They have been relocated 26 kilometers outside the capital to an arid, infertile clay bed without running water. “Farming is all I know, it’s what I have done all my life,” said the 58-year-old Noua, fighting back tears. “What can I do in that place? I have no water, the soil is bad. How do I earn money to feed my family?”
“[The state-controlled press] said that we had all volunteered. That is not true. We did not want to leave, but we were pressured,” Noua said. “Each family had visits from the government so that we could not take collective action … The old (village head) fought to stay, but he was sacked and relocated. The new village head would not allow us to send a letter of protest or to complain. He agreed with the government.”
Lao officials aspire to transform sleepy Vientiane into a thriving modern city. Bit by bit, the city is noticeably hotter and more arid as once regal trees fall and concrete buildings expand. Land grabs are often defended by the mantra of poverty eradication, but there is growing evidence that the government’s development drive is making matters worse for the majority of capital dwellers.
“There are many questions about the compensation packages,” an agricultural consultant with a Swiss development project and who declined identification said referring to forced evictions of communities, including at Don Chan. “The process was in no ways transparent. There were very few meetings held to discuss the issue. In essence the people were given 12 months to agree pack up and get out.”
Ahead of the ASEAN Summit to be held later this month in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a similar story is playing out. More than a hundred families have been threatened with eviction from their homes to pave the way specifically for US President Barack Obama’s historic visit, the first ever by a sitting American president.
The families, who live in three villages near Phnom Penh’s international airport, have been asked by local officials to leave in order to build a security road and buffer zone specifically for Obama’s visit in mid-November. Obama is expected to attend the East Asia Summit which will take place in Phnom Penh from the 18th to the 20th of November.
“I have no idea where I will go. I can’t move at all,” said Poun Sopheap, 38, a soft-drink saleswoman and mother of seven who spent US$15,000 to buy land and build a home near the airport last year. “The government wants to take all my land to build a road to protect Obama’s safety.”
Sopheap was among several hundred people who recently protested in front of Cambodia’s National Assembly against illegal evictions. They wore cardboard houses on their heads and carried documents with thumbprints showing that they lawfully purchased their lands and demanded fair compensation for their loss of property.
Chray Nin, a 34-year-old who also lives near the airport, said she had just finished building her home in July before she received the government’s eviction notice. The letter, according to her, stated that she had one week to vacate her home or face the possibility of being forcefully removed by police.
“I already spent $4,000 of my own money and borrowed $8,000 from the bank to build my house. Ninety-seven% of people in the village still owe money to the bank,” she said. “We want to know why when high-ranking officials like Barack Obama come to visit Cambodia, why does the Cambodian government have to make their own citizens move?”
Var Sarang, the deputy chief of Choam Chao commune where the villages are located, said 291 families are facing eviction because authorities need to build a fenced buffer zone around the airport. The fence is needed to ensure the security of all world leaders who will attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asian summits in Phnom Penh in November.
Sarang added that authorities have said it is also necessary to expand the runway so that larger airplanes can land in Cambodia, noting that authorities have had plans to expand the airport since 2005.
The American embassy in Phnom Penh would not confirm that it had requested Cambodian officials to increase security at the airport in light of Obama’s visit. “I respectfully refer you to the Cambodian government on matters of its security plans,” embassy spokesman Sean McIntosh said by email.
Khek Norinda, spokesman for Cambodia Airports, did not respond to an email requesting a comment for this story; authorities at Cambodia’s State Secretariat of Civil Aviation would not speak to a reporter.
Prime Minister Hun Sen announced earlier this year that a new airport will be built in Phnom Penh to facilitate an expected increase in the number of tourists who visit the country. Norinda told the Phnom Penh Post newspaper that the capital’s existing airport will be expanded starting next year to double its capacity to 5 million passengers per year.
Yim Sovann, the spokesman for Cambodia’s opposition Sam Rainsy Party, said that Obama’s visit and the ASEAN meeting were just excuses for an illegal land grab near the airport. The leaders of China and Vietnam have come to Cambodia in recent years and their safety was guaranteed without any evictions, he said.
“I think Obama does not require anybody to evict the people for his security and I think the US embassy also said they don’t know about this,” he said. “I think it’s a mistake of local authorities. If they reserved the land for expanding the airport, why didn’t they tell (the residents) before?”
According to Sovann, the state-backed evictions near the airport are the latest incident in a long list of illegal land grabs that have plagued the residents of Cambodia’s capital in recent years as the city began developing rapidly and the cost of land skyrocketed.
He estimated that since 1999 around 100,000 people were forced to leave their land and houses around Phnom Penh. These families were sometimes relocated to places outside the city that have no roads, no sanitation, no water supplies and no markets or schools in the vicinity.
“In some places, they live like during the Khmer Rouge regime,” Sovann said, referring to the radical Maoist regime that emptied the capital and established rural labor camps in a bid to convert the country into an agrarian Utopia.
In one of the best-known land grabs, the residents whose homes and businesses stood on the banks of the city’s picturesque Boeung Kak lake were forced to leave when the lake was sold to a private company chaired by a senior member of Cambodia’s ruling party, Lao Meng Khin. The company pumped sand into the lake and evicted thousands of people from the 133-hectare site.
“In other countries, if there is a lake in the middle of the city, they preserve it for the benefit of the people. In the dry season, it can absorb heat, and in the rainy season it can absorb water,” Sovann said. But in Cambodia, the lake was destroyed “for the benefit of one senator”, he said.
Property rights in Cambodia’s capital are a contentious issue since the Khmer Rouge destroyed the country’s land registries. When the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge and people returned to the abandoned capital, many of the former residents had died from malnutrition or were murdered by the Khmer Rouge, who famously targeted educated city dwellers.
The people who moved to Phnom Penh in the 1980s often squatted in the empty apartment blocks, or built their homes on unoccupied land. As a result, many do not have proper documents despite residing on the land for decades. Sovann says that whatever the case, economic development, including the expansion of the airport, should not come at the price of people’s rights.
“Eviction without fair compensation is against the law and seriously violates human rights,” he said. “Why have development if the people have to cry? …Development should not be for the rich and powerful only.”
Beaumont Smith, a freelance journalist, reported from Vientiane. Julie Masis, a Cambodia-based journalist, reported from Phnom Penh.