“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 Réseau Express Métropolitain: the multi-billion dollar light rail project Montreal never asked for

Montreal from the summit of Mont Royal. Image: Getty.

The Réseau Express Métropolitain (REM) is the 67-kilometre, C$6.3bn light rail project Montreal never asked for.

It is the single largest transit project in Montreal in half a century. Not since the construction of the Métro has there been as bold a proposal: an entirely new mass-transit system that would have the effect of radically altering the city’s urban landscape.

Conceived, planned and costed by the Province of Quebec’s institutional investor, the Caisse de dépot et placement du Québec (CDPQ), the REM is currently under construction and slated to become operational between 2021 and 2023.

Once completed, it is supposed to provide high-frequency, intermediate-volume light-rail service on a regional level: connecting suburbs with the city centre along three axes and linking Montreal’s central business district with its international airport.

The REM may even connect to an as-yet unbuilt baseball stadium, and politicians have even proposed extending it over hundreds of kilometres to provide inter-city service. Indeed, the REM has been strongly endorsed – by both the federal and provincial governments that back it – as a panacea for all of Greater Montreal’s transit and traffic congestion problems.

Since it was first proposed in 2015, the REM has been championed above all else as a guaranteed-to-succeed “public-public partnership”. A win-win, where various levels of government cooperate and coordinate with an arm’s-length government agency to produce much-needed new transit and transport infrastructure.

Unlike the more commonly known public-private partnership (of which there are some notable recent failures in Quebec), the obvious insinuation is that – this time – there’s no private interest or profit to worry about.

PR aside, the pension funds managed by the CDPQ are private, not public, wealth. The CDPQ’s entire raison d’etre is to profit. It has even gone to the lengths of “mandating” the REM to provide it an annual profit of about 10 per cent, a cost to be assumed by the governments of Quebec and Canada in the event the REM isn’t profitable.

The law that has made the REM possible has other interesting components. The REM is legally distinct from and superior to other public transit agencies and the extant regional planning authority. It has exclusive access to publicly-funded transit infrastructure. There’s even a “non-compete” clause with the city’s existing mass transit services, as well as special surtax on all properties within a 1km radius of each of the 26 proposed stations.

This latter element takes on a new dimension when you consider the CDPQ’s real-estate arm, Ivanhoé-Cambridge, has a near total monopoly on the properties surrounding the future downtown nexus of the REM, and is invested in suburban shopping centres that will soon host REM stations.

It seems that Montreal isn't so much getting a new mass transit system as a pension fund is using a new transport system to stimulate growth in a faltering if not moribund commercial and residential property sector.

Quebec’s public pensions have historically invested in suburban sprawl. As this market becomes increasingly untenable, and populations shift back towards the city centre, the REM is supposed to stimulate growth in “transit-oriented developments” centred on its future stations. The new surtaxes are likely intended to force sales of land for immediate redevelopment, so that new homes are ready to move into as soon as the system becomes operational.

It’s important here to remember that the city of Montreal wasn’t given several billion dollars by the government with which to spend developing its mass transit system. Rather, Quebec’s former premier asked the CDPQ to come up with a way to integrate several long-standing yet unrealized transit proposals. These included a light-rail system over Montreal’s new Champlain Bridge, an express train to Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, and a dedicated commuter rail line for the Western suburbs. It was the CDPQ that proposed a fully-automated light-rail system that would use existing technology as well as some of Montreal’s extant railway infrastructure as an inexpensive way of uniting several different projects into an assumedly more efficient one.

So far so good. Cities need more mass transit, especially in the era of climate change, and Montreal contends with regular congestion both on its roadways and various mass transit systems. Moreover, access to the city’s already generally-high quality public transit systems is an important driver of property values and new residential development.

Considering the evident need for more transit, the REM theoretically provides an opportunity to kill several birds with one stone. Better still, the REM will in all likelihood stimulate the transit-oriented developments and re-urbanisation necessary for a more sustainable future city.

A map of the proposed network, with metro lines in colour and commuter rail in grey. Click to expand. Image: Calvin411/Wikimedia Commons.

The REM is the business “test case” on which two new government entities are based; the CDPQ’s infrastructure development arm, and the Canadian government’s infrastructure development bank.

The REM is also intended to stimulate economic activity in important economic sectors – such as engineering, construction and technology – that could soon be in high-demand internationally. Both the governments of Quebec and Canada see tremendous value in the economic potential of infrastructure mega projects at home and abroad.

This aside, the actual development of the REM has been complicated by what appears to be a bad case of over-promising and under-delivering, at least in terms of how seamlessly it could be integrated into the city’s extant transit and transport systems.

Though the train as originally conceived was intended to use an existing electrified railway line as the backbone of the network, it now appears that the REM cannot in fact be adapted to the line’s current voltage. The entire line, and the tunnel it passes through, requires a thorough overhaul, something that had last been completed in the mid-1990s. The new electrification, as well as the reconstruction of the tunnel, will cut it off from the regional commuter rail network. Rather than have different types of rail systems share existing infrastructure, the REM will force the premature (and unnecessary) retirement of a fleet of high-volume electric trains.

Consider that while the REM will connect the city with its international airport, it’s not planned to go just one kilometre farther to connect the airport with a major multi-modal transit station. Dorval Station integrates a sizeable suburban bus terminus with a train station that serves both regional commuter rail as well as the national railways network.

It’s difficult to understand how and why such an obvious and useful connection wasn’t considered. Given long-standing interest in high-speed and/or high-frequency rail service in Canada, La Presse columnist François Cardinal has noted that a REM connection between airport and a likely future rail hub would extend access to international air travel far further than just downtown Montreal.


The REM was also supposed to integrate seamlessly into the Montreal’s built environment, its promoters insisting construction could be completed with minimal inconvenience to current transit users. By the end of this year, REM-related construction will force a two-year closure of Montreal’s most-used commuter rail line, and sever the most recently-built rail line off from the transit hubs in the centre of the city. Tens of thousands of commuters throughout the Montreal region will be forced to make do with already over-saturated bus and métro service.

Though public consultations revealed these and other flaws, concerns raised by the public, by professionals and even some politicians were largely ignored. The REM also failed its environmental assessment. The provincial agency responsible for such evaluations, the BAPE, stated baldly that the project wasn't ready for primetime and lambasted the CDPQ’s lack of transparency. In turn, the BAPE was accused of exceeding its mandate. The REM made a similarly poor impression, with transit users groups, architects and urban planners criticizing the project in whole and in part.

The main points of contention are that the REM won’t do much in the short term to alleviate congestion across the city’s existing – and comparatively expansive - mass-transit network. Quite the opposite: it is already beginning to exacerbate the problem.

Because the REM was conceived without the involvement of either the city’s main transit agency or the regional transit planning authority, its progress is hampered by a wide-variety of problems that would otherwise likely have been planned for. And because it’s a mass-transit solution to what is primarily a political consideration, the REM will provide higher-frequency service of dubious necessity to the city’s low-density suburban hinterland, much of which already has ample commuter-focused transit service. The high-density urban-core, which is most in need of transit expansion, will benefit perhaps least of all.

While it’s unlikely the REM will fail outright, it’s also unlikely to stimulate much new interest in using mass-transit services: it will first have to win back those who may abandon mass-transit while the REM is being built. Providing higher-frequency service to suburbia is the kind of thing that sounds good in theory, but doesn’t respond to commuters’ actual needs. Arguably the REM’s best feature – its real-estate development potential – has been somewhat obscured from public view because of obvious conflicts of interest. The REM’s limitations – and there are many – will for the most part only become known once the system is operational, at which point it will be too late.

The REM provides interesting theoretical avenues worthy of exploration – particularly the potential relationships between new transit development and how it may stimulate new growth in the housing sector. But building a new transit system – especially one this large and complex – ultimately requires the fullest possible degree of cooperation; with transit users, extant transit agencies and regional planning bodies.

Ignoring the recommendations of experts, the public and government assessment agencies for the sake of expediency is never a wise idea. When it comes to designing and implementing the mass-transit systems of the future, the needs, wants and opinions of users must be paramount. In Montreal, it appears as though they were an afterthought and an inconvenience.

Whether Montrealers will be able to vote with their wallets remains to be seen. Under the specific conditions set with which to integrate the REM into Montreal's overal mass transit scheme, other types of transit have either been replaced by the REM or will have their routes and schedules modified to better serve it. The REM removes operational redundancy between different systems in an effort to be more efficient, but this will likely have the effect of forcing many Montreal transit users to use a one-size-fits-all solution that doesn't suit anyone's needs

It’s difficult to imagine how forcing people to use a transit system they never asked for will encourage greater use.