“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.”

 
 
 
 

The public supports stronger tenant rights. The government needs to act

How terribly kind of you. Image: Getty.

More than half of the population (53 per cent) do not think that renting privately works fairly for tenants, according to a recent report from the IPPR.

It is easy to see why. Limited protection from eviction, rising rents and poor conditions all impact on the public's perception of the sector. Hardly surprising then that 61 per cent of people do not think that the sector provides tenants with a long-term, stable home and 59 per cent say it does not provide affordable homes.

As part of our research, IPPR conducted focus groups across the country with tenants and landlords, aiming to understand more about people’s experiences of the tenure and what they would like to see done to reform it.

Through our in-depth conversations with tenants we found that many remain very concerned about the insecurity of private renting, worrying about having to move at short notice and putting them off complaining about repairs or poor conditions for fear of appearing as a nuisance. The high cost of rents, fees and deposits contributed further to this insecurity and caused hardship for a number of those we spoke to.

Experiences with poor conditions were commonplace, as were difficulties in getting landlords to complete repairs. Moreover, tenants often did not feel at home in the sector, with limits placed on them by landlords – preventing them from decorating for example – making them feel as though they didn’t have control over their home.

From the landlords’ perspective, many were concerned about welfare reform, which made them reluctant to let to those in receipt of housing benefit; reforms and reductions to tax relief on private landlords, which had reduced their income; and the legal system, which many felt was too slow in the rare cases where a tenant was not paying rent, exposing them to many months with no rental income.

Our research also found that tenants and landlords share some key issues. They both lack knowledge on their rights and responsibilities, undermining their ability to exercise them and meaning that tenants cannot assume lawful treatment by default.

They both felt the other party had greater power in the system. Tenants feel that they lack power in the system as a whole, resulting in mistrust, while landlords have expressed frustration at a lack of power in key parts of the process, principally at the end of a tenancy.


Finally, both tenants and landlords have limited trust in the system and the ability of government to reform it, demonstrating that reforms will need to build confidence in the sector if they are to be successful.

However, it was not all doom and gloom. We also found support for reform amongst landlords. Many recognised the impact a lack of security had on tenants, particularly those with children, and expressed a willingness for extra security to be offered to renters.

The government is making positive, though tentative, steps in reforming the sector – banning letting agency fees, consulting on the introduction of longer tenancies and exploring court reform. But, as in so many areas, this important area of domestic policy risks being starved of attention in the face of dealing with Brexit.

Failing to address the issues with the private rented sector would be a major own goal for the government given the widespread support for reform: 72 per cent of the public think government should be more involved in improving and regulating the private rented sector. Moreover, analysis conducted by the housing charity Shelter has shown that in marginal constituencies, private tenants make up a significant block of voters.

That 4.7m households have limited access to a stable home, are more likely to suffer poor conditions and lack control over their home are fundamental issue of justice. But as our work has shown, tackling these issues wouldn’t just ensure that the sector was more just: it would be hugely popular with tenants and the wider public, too.

Darren Baxter is a research fellow at IPPR.