“We have no choice”: on compulsory evictions and elections in Cambodia

Voters gather round a noticeboard in Phnom Penh. Image: Getty.

“We have to go, we have no choice,” says the young woman. “They are watching me.”

It is end of July and election-day in Cambodia, and out of fear of repercussions, she will go to vote – despite the fact that, the main opposition party having been dissolved, she has no party left for her to support.

The woman, who requested to remain anonymous, stands next to her apartment building in Borei Keila, situated at the heart of the kingdom’s capital Phnom Penh. But it’s an apartment that might exist not much longer.

Borei Keila is one of the longest-standing land-disputes in the country, with company Phanimex laying claim to the lands of hundreds of families. Since the beginning of the dispute more than ten years ago, indeed, hundreds of families have been evicted or accepted compensation. The woman is one of a handful of people left at the site, holding out in hope of receiving adequate compensation.

Over the past few weeks, the Cambodia government has threatened legal actions against those who openly boycotted the vote. This comes after the authorities arrested the opposition leader Kem Sokha, and the Supreme Court dissolved his party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, at the end of last year.

Seemingly trying to uphold some legitimacy, the government urged people to vote: a low turnout would show the disillusion many voters felt since the dissolution of the CNRP, which won more than 40 per cent of the popular vote in last year’s commune elections.

In the lead-up to the elections, more than 30 news outlets were forced to shut down or taken off air, critical voices arrested, and 118 opposition members banned from politics for five years.

Afraid she will be denied compensation, so as to punish her as a non-voter, the woman is on her way to vote, so that she can show her finger, darkened by indelible ink, for the next few days.  “If I don’t go, I will have pressure,” she says. “I feel quite terrible. This is not what I want to do.”


Despite feeling forced to vote, the woman says she might quietly show her discontent by invalidating her ballot sheet.

A floor down, her neighbor Ming chose a different kind of protest and speaks openly about boycotting the elections. “I think there is no democracy. That’s why I don’t go to vote. There is no party I love, no one I’m satisfied with,” she says.  Ming says going to vote won’t make a difference to her case. “If I vote for them they will still put pressure on me. If I go to vote, they will still evict me.”

Community leader Sar Sorn agrees. “I don’t go to vote because the party I love doesn’t exist anymore, because today’s leadership is destruction. They destroy the nation, they destroy resources, they violate people’s rights, they make people unemployed, and they evict people,” she says.

Her boycott didn’t go unnoticed, however: authorities were monitoring her, Sorn says. That morning, she recounts, she had heard a security personnel saying into his walkie-talkie that she was on her way to the polling station. But she only went there to see how many people showed up, and when she left the school-turned-polling-station, she was followed again. “Wherever I go, I’m monitored,” she says.

Further up north in Boeung Kak area, another woman tells CityMetric how the fear of losing her land might push her to vote. She strongly opposes the government – but says she hasn’t made up her mind yet whether she’ll make her way to the polling station nearby before it closes at 3 pm.

“I will see at 2 or 2:30 pm whether I want to vote,” she says.  “I feel sad and I don’t know what to do. One heart wants to go to vote, one heart does not want to. If I go to vote, it’s equivalent to supporting the Prime Minister and supporting him treating people badly.”

She has also found herself in a land-dispute for several years. The Boeung Kak community used to live around a 90-hectare lake in the north of Phnom Penh. But when Shukaku Inc., the real estate developer owned by ruling party senator Lao Meng Khin, came in in 2007 and filled it in, many saw their houses flooded or destroyed; others were evicted.  Protests turned violent; several activists were arrested.

Tep Vanny, a prominent and award-winning human rights defender from the community, has been in jail for two years based on charges that rights groups say were political.

One woman in her mid-fifties, who also requested to remain anonymous due to fears of repercussions, tells me that she has only been offered a land title for half of the land she is entitled to. She did not receive any compensation when her house was flooded.

 “If I don’t go to vote, they will not give me the land title and accuse me of wrongdoings,” she says. She is also afraid of not receiving public services from the municipality anymore – of being blacklisted if she doesn’t show up at the polling station.

But like Borei Keila residents, she says she will not vote for the ruling party. “Maybe I will leave the ballot blank,” she says.

Later that day, the National Election Committee (NEC) announces turnout. In Phnom Penh, the preliminary turnout grows from 58.4 percent in the morning to 69.7 percent in the afternoon, to a final count of 80.0 percent in the evening – this despite reports of empty polling stations from observers and journalists all afternoon. The same day the ruling party declares a landslide victory; in the coming days, it announces having won all 125 parliamentary seats.

For the Boeung Kak and Borei Keila residents, this was a predictable . “It’s like a single-boxing game,” says Sar Sorn. “A sportsman is hitting alone.”

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.