The problem of forced evictions and land grabs is growing worse in Cambodia, leading to violence fuelled by deep dissatisfaction over existing resettlement schemes. Estimates by both local and international organizations including Amnesty International identified approximately 10 percent of the population of Phnom Penh as having faced eviction in the last decade.
Amnesty International reported that several urban communities had been evicted from their homes and relocated to areas lacking in 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 the frequent targets. People are evicted from their homes 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 the driving factors. However, “development” is the most frequent reason put forward in all countries, including Cambodia.
Surprisingly, almost all regions of the globe 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 which covered 80 countries from 1998 to 2008, more than 18 million people have been 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. Even worse, UN-Habitat reported that large scale development during the 1980s and 1990s had resulted in the displacement of 10 million people each year. During the following decade this number peaked at an estimated 15 million people per year.
Cambodia ranks first among Asian countries in terms of its number of evictions which are due to five key factors: 1) illegal construction and land occupation; 2) city development and beautification; 3) property market forces, gentrification and private development; 4) economic land concessions; and 5) social land concessions.
There are different figures reported for the number of families affected by forced eviction and land grabs. For example, the Cambodian civil rights group Adhoc reportedly says that in the last year  alone, 12,389 families were victims of forced evictions. According to a survey in 13 of Cambodia’s 24 provinces by another local human rights organization Licadho, during the first half of 2010 more than 3,500 families – approximately 17,000 people – were affected by land grabbing. Another figure from land mapping launched on the first human rights portal, sithi.org, hosted by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, points out that 47,342 families were or could be affected by the 223 land disputes reported in the public domain during the 4 years since 2007.
Although there are no agreed on common figures about the number of families affected by land grabs and forced eviction, and Cambodia still does not have a central database for collecting such data, these ever higher figures indicate a critical concern that a revolution among the farmers may be in the offing if measures are not taken soon to give them redress.
While the government justifies evictions for the sake of beautifying and developing the cities, there are many eviction cases involving violence and legal abuses where little or no actual development has taken place. Strikingly enough, 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 powerful affiliated businessmen.
Yet there have also 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 between 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 also addressing the government poverty reduction program and advancing the millennium development goals.
This model should be applied to cases where the government urgently needs an area for development or investment projects so that human security risks are avoided. The government’s current pursuit of development has often involved 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 have different definitions of development. In traditional economic terms, the notion is strictly based on the capacity of a national economy valued in terms of the gross domestic product. However, development as put forward 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: 1) Sustenance, or meeting basic needs including food, shelter, health and security; 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 the availability of 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, and contribute 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” need to reevaluate their development agenda in order to faithfully address the core values and objectives of development.