“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.”

 
 
 
 

Is all economics local?

The Bank of England. Image: Getty.

Last month, Andy Haldane, the Chief Economist at the Bank of England, published his latest in a series of thought provoking think pieces about the economy. It posed the question, “Is all economics local?

This is quite a departure from the thinking of the Bank of England (and no doubt any other central banks around the world). The Bank has for the most part seen the UK economy as one single unit, rather than a collection of many hundreds of smaller economies. And when it has looked beyond the national headline, it hasn’t tended to do much more than a cursory look at regions, which as a unit of analysis miss much of the variation that we see across the country and the reasons for it.

So it was very pleasing from our point of view that Andy has addressed this question head on, and hopefully this will set the tone for how the Bank looks at the economy in the future.

If Andy’s speech represents the frontier of the Bank’s thinking on subnational economics, however, it shows that there is some development of thinking that is required.

This is underlined by the cartogram below, which was used in the speech. It shows how complex or “sophisticated” an economy is, based on the type of activities that take place there, with more complex economies being larger in size.

What jumps out here is that in general, the economies of cities are more complex than elsewhere. But this wasn’t noted in the speech, despite being crucial to understanding the patterns that the cartogram shows.

A cartogram of complexity of economic activity across the country. Click to expand.

This pattern occurs because of the different benefits that different places offer. Cities (and city centres in particular) offer access to a large number of potential workers and a network of businesses that companies can share ideas and information with (known as “knowledge spillovers”). In contrast, deep rural areas offer neither of these benefits. But what they do offer is a lot of land at a much cheaper price and access to the countryside, by definition, is on the doorstep.

Where businesses locate depends on the trade-off that they make between these different benefits. What the cartogram above shows is that those more complex activities choose cities.

More specifically, they choose city centres – 25 per cent of Britain’s service exporting jobs (such as finance, marketing and software development) locate in city centres, despite accounting for just 0.1 per cent of Britain’s land. By comparison, deep rural areas are home to 5 per cent of such activities, despite covering over half of Britain’s land mass. And despite ever more sophisticated communications technologies, the data suggests that these patterns of firm location have become more pronounced over the last two decades.


Without this understanding, it would be perfectly reasonable for a policy maker to attempt to use policy levers to make the cartogram look more even across geography. And indeed Andy suggests that the cartogram could be used to help inform the forthcoming local industrial strategies. But the descriptive power of the statistics, which is really interesting, tells us little if it is not couched in a framework for understanding the role that different types of places play in the national economy.

This understanding then helps us to expect that central Manchester will be more complex or productive than Cumbria or Cornwall. And it should spur us to ask why it isn’t as complex as Bristol, Brighton or London, and design policy to respond to this.

All economics is local. But different types of place have different types of economies because of the relative benefits that they offer. And because of this we shouldn’t expect all local economies to be the same. No doubt this will come out more strongly as the Bank continues to explore this area.

Paul Swinney is head of policy & research at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.