My official job title at the Housing Rights Task Force (HRTF) is ‘Community Organizing Intern’. Almost every day, I’m out in the community with Star and another person on HRTF’s staff that serves as a translator. We conduct demographic surveys and discuss with community leaders the threat of eviction the community faces. HRTF advocates for Phnom Penh’s urban poor and through these trips into the field, I’ve seen a lot of parts of Phnom Penh that I would never have seen before. Most of these little villages will never appear on a map (we frequently get lost trying to find them) and since they are small and vulnerable, few ever know that the government mistreats the communities.
The four of us HRTF interns from Duke have 4, 20 minute Tuk Tuk rides together every day to and from work. These trips tend to generate intense discussions about what we’re doing this summer. One of our most common conversation topics is whether or not the communities we visit have a legitimate claim to their land and how the government should balance development and providing for its people. We also tend to have heated discussion about the validity of our organization’s primary goals. These are a couple of the communities I’ve been to and their stories, as well as a bit of commentary on what they do, or do not deserve from the government in the case of eviction, as well as some thoughts on HRTF.
The Cheko community has been settled in this area since 1981. The government has refused to grant the community land titles despite numerous requests. The community has been organized since 1998 and has been working extensively with several NGOs to develop the infrastructure of the neighborhood, educate the residents, and great a strong community leadership to fight for land titles. The community’s 360 residents contribute to a communal savings fund that has been used to improve the community infrastructure by fixing the water and sewage systems. There have been vague rumors that the government wants to sell the land to a private company to develop. Under Cambodian law, the members of this community should be given titles to their land when it is registered because they are considered legal possessors and are peacefully settled in their homes. In addition, the community has made substantial improvements on its own to systems that the government is obligated, but neglected to, supply. Therefore, the community members deserve greater compensation should they be evicted due to a greater market value of their property. This is a well established and strong neighborhood that would cause the government a lot of trouble if they are unfairly evicted. City Hall should leave well enough alone in this case.
The Tampa community is located on the upper floors of a building that was largely gutted by a massive fire in 2002. The 92 residents have been living in the community since 1979 and in 1991 were granted a communal land title for 17 homes. Before the fire, residents were threatened with eviction due to the building’s poor drainage system and a lack of a sewage system. Now, government officials are again threatening eviction due to the risk of another fire. It was hard to tell given the language barrier, but it seems like the building will soon be condemned and that is why the residents will be evicted. The community members do not want to leave their homes but should they be forced to, they are entitled to compensation because they possess a land title. This was a strage case because Cambodia does have very clear building codes and the community seems to have ignored this and waited for the government to come fix their building for them. Since these people are land owners, it is their responsibility to keep their homes up to code. The government therefore has every right to force them to make the necessary improvements to prevent another fire, force them to sell their homes so the building can be restored, or to move elsewhere. This was a case where we agreed that housing rights do not extend to owner negligence and the government is actually doing the right thing to protect the people.
These cases are two of the less complicated ones we’ve faced. One of these communities deserves to stay on its land and the other deserves to leave due to its own negligence. The thing about HRTF is, the organization believes that neither community should be evicted. In fact, HRTF doesn’t think anyone should be evicted, ever, even if people are living on public land, opening shops on top of a railroad track, or can’t afford their rent. This is an ideological stance that doesn’t really sit well with me. I feel like we’re giving false hope to communities that really have no chance of keeping their land when we tell them we’ll be their advocates. In addition, HRTF seems to have an unrealistic view of the government. The staff all see the government as being out to get the poor people of the country. I’m no fan of Hun Sen, the dictatorial Prime Minister, but it’s important to keep in mind that Cambodia is industrializing, people are going to have to leave their homes to fix the railroad, to build water storage facilities on state land, and to develop the country. There’s a fine line between recognizing the shortcomings of a government while considering it’s realities and developing a Big Brother complex. Well, HRTF looked at that line and long-jumped over to the side that hates the government. I know I’m learning a lot by working at HRTF but I can’t help but feel that the organization is a bit misguided in its views. Some days, going to work feels like a fight against brainwashing. I don’t think such a small organization was ready for the scrutiny, or maybe just cynicism, that the four of us Duke students subject it to.