This story was published in Trouw, with text by Ate Hoekstra and pictures by Kristof Vadino.
In the centre of Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia, lives a community of Cham muslims. Catching fish in the Tonle Sap river forms their daily income. But
Sokha Hotels is building a luxury hotel hundred meters inland. Sokha is a strong corporation wich has neat ties with the government.
The leaders of the community say they will do all they can to stay on this place. But everything indicates that before the Sokha Hotel is finished they will be forced to leave their land. Evening dresses and corporate meetings don't seem to fit with the fisherman's boats.
Every year thousands of Cambodians become victim of land grabbing and forced eviction.
Whole article: ‘If we have to leave, I don’t know where to go’
Text: Ate Hoekstra (http://atehoekstra.com/)
PHNOM PENH – Routinely Karim steers his boat over the water. The Cambodian fisherman lights a cigarette and watches the view over the Tonlé Sap River. His wife Amrah sits nearby and wears a headscarf. When Karim stops the boat, she throws a fishing net into the water. After a few minutes and with help from Karim, she gets it back up. There are a few small fishes in the net and one bigger fish with a silver grey skin. “That’s a nice one”, Amrah says. “It should bring us 6000 riel per kilo” (about 1,5 US dollar).
Karim and Amrah are Cham Muslims, a Muslim group that has been living in Cambodia for hundreds of years. Many of them work as fisherman and –woman. But in Phnom Penh, at the peninsula that divides the Mekong River from the Tonlé Sap River, their lives are under threat by the construction of a large hotel. The Sokha Hotel will have more than 450 rooms and is being built next to their pier. The fishing Muslims, who don’t own a house or land, fear that the hotel management will force them to leave. Where-to go, nobody knows.
According to Nicolas Agostini, land conflict specialist with human rights group ADHOC Cambodia, there are ‘strong forces’ involved. Sokha Hotels, a company that already owns several luxury hotels in Cambodia, is close connected to the government and has the authorities on its side, Agostini explains. Because of that it seems the Cham community is waiting the same fate as tens of thousands other Cambodians who were victims of land grabbing and forced evictions through the last ten years. “I hope they will find a solution for the Chams”, Agostini says. “But I’m afraid Sokha doesn’t care about these people and will simply force them to move.”
Less than a year ago the Muslims also had to leave. Back then the about fifty Cham families were living on the other shore of the peninsula, opposite from Cambodia’s Royal Palace. After living there for tens of years, the government decided their presence wasn’t good for ‘the view of the city’. Agostini: “Of course they made that argument up, but the riverbanks are public state land which means you are not allowed to live there. But the thing is that some families have been living there since 1979 and they have always been guaranteed they can stay. But then last August, unannounced and completely illegal, the police showed up at 2 in the morning and forced them to leave. Luckily that ended up well, but when the Ramadan was over they still had to move.”
Since that move life didn’t got easier for the Chams. The market to sell the fish is now a few kilometers further away, so are the school and the mosque. Now an open space with a green cloth that works as a roof serves as a house of prayer. When the call to pray sounds, about ten man kneel on the wooden floor. Treh Roun, one of three local leaders, leads them. After praying, he tells that his community will not move that easily again. “We will not give up our living area before they offer us a proper piece of land and we know for sure we can continue fishing.”
According to Treh Roun the management of Sokha Hotel refuses to tell them what they can expect. Known is that the 16-floor hotel will probably be opened in 2014 and expects to have room for about 800 guests. When it comes to the fate of the Cham community Sokha employers refuse to say anything, just as government workers at the construction site.
When, at the end of the morning, Karim and Amrah return from their fishing trip and their boat passes the hotel, Karim looks worried. Every day he fears to be send away. “If we have to leave this place, I don’t know where to go. We don’t have any other option than to fish and live here.”
Box on forced evictions
According to statistics of the Cambodian human rights group Licadho, since 2003 approximately 400.000 people in Cambodia have become victims of land grabbing and forced eviction. For example to make room for the construction of new hotels, recreation areas or plantations. Thousands of victims, mostly poor farmers or fishermen who have been living in the area for decades, resisted and protested against the evictions and the low compensations that were offered.