“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.”


Park Life: Nudity, death and bears in West Hendon

Sailing boat on Brent reservoir, Wikicommons

Some parks were created for the rich, some parks were created for the poor, but Brent’s Welsh Harp Open Space is different: it was created for THE CANAL. Why that should be the case may not immediately be obvious from a map, the Welsh Harp reservoir that gives the green space sits in the middle of the River Brent, which is notably not a canal – but if you look closely at where the river leaves the reservoir, there’s a thin blue strip labelled Canal Feeder.

By the early 19th century Britain’s canal network was growing so quickly that they’d actually run out of water to fill it well, at least in Camden, where the level of the Regent’s Canal kept dropping below what was actually necessary for e.g. a boat. There was only one thing for it: dam the river Brent and flood a farm in Hendon. The resulting reservoir could then be used to top up the canal, and no more boats would have to risk the unenviable fate of getting trapped outside Camden Market.

When the reservoir was created in 1834, it was actually significantly bigger a return to that level today would see it flood Brent Cross Shopping Centre, which is certainly an interesting idea to consider if you’ve ever been to Brent Cross Shopping Centre. Back in the 19th century, the most significant bit of local commerce was, inevitably, a pub - the new Kingsbury Reservoir (as it was then) had an inn called The Harp on its shoreline.

This eventually became known as The Welsh Harp – it’s not entirely clear whether the reservoir gained its unofficial name (from which the green bit above it in turn gained its official name) from the pub, or vice versa. It’s occasionally claimed that the name stems from the reservoir looking a bit like a Welsh Harp from above, which I guess it sort of does if you squint while really, really wanting it to look like a Welsh Harp for some reason. But the existence of loads of other pubs called The Welsh Harp that aren’t next to plausibly-shaped reservoirs would seem to be a point against it.

Anyway, what is true is that the pub was what made the shores of the reservoir a visitor attraction in the 1850s a bloke called William Perkins Warner returned from fighting the Crimean War to buy The Welsh Harp AND the reservoir’s fishing rights, which at least suggests that Drunk Fishing may have been a more popular Victorian sport than is mostly supposed. Other sporting attractions on offer included: shooting at birds, racing greyhounds and boxing (humans, presumably). The inn itself incorporated a music hall, and at one point a menagerie containing at least one bear, except in 1871, when it escaped (they should bring that back to liven up All Bar Ones).

Popularity waned as London suburbia took hold of the area and people’s option for a fun day out had broadened enough that Hendon was no longer near the top of anyone’s list. But as the 20th century rolled around other activities were offered, at least if you were in the army: testing a brilliant new World War I invention called “the tank”, for one. And, then, after the war: nudism!

From 1921 the area around the reservoir was a regular haunt for members of various exciting new naturist organisations along the lines of the “The Sun Ray Club”. The club’s founder Captain HH Vincent was a fierce advocate for nude sunbathing and had made bold threats of 2,000 strong marches of naked protesters through Hyde Park; in the event it appears the reality of this was him getting arrested for taking his top off, one time, but still.

The relatively secluded fields around the reservoir proved to be safer ground until June 1930, when locals lost their minds over the fact that nude and semi-nude men and women had been spotted NEAR EACH OTHER and there was a small riot, the end result of which was the nudists buggering off to St Albans to leave the residents of London to be angry and confused about something else instead.

The Welsh Harp pub was demolished to make way for the M1, but much of the immediate area around the reservoir has managed to survive various development plans. There was a persistent attempt to build a cemetery on the north western side they even got as far as building a chapel and some nearby allotments are apparently theoretically on ground which was consecrated and no-one had got around to de-consecrating. The attempts to prevent the creation of the cemetery led to the 1965 designation of much of the area north of the reservoir as the imaginatively named Welsh Harp Open Space, which persists today as a bit of a slightly unloved bit of greenery, but one where you can at least definitely count on being unmolested by the bears, the dead, or the nude.