Phnom Penh, Cambodia 

They start with the walls, peeling off tin sheets or wooden planks from the homes that make up the lakeside slum of Boeung Kak. They carefully remove windows or old wooden doors – anything they can use to rebuild. When they’re finished, all that remain are a pile of bricks and a few square-metres of aged floor tiles.

For weeks, Im Bunnary has looked on in fear as her neighbours tear down their homes.

One of these days, she knows, she could be next.

‘I get really afraid when I see my neighbours moving,’ she says. ‘It makes me think that it’s going to be my turn soon.’

Bunnary is part of an estimated 4,000 families who lived around Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak lake area. But they’ve been told they must move to make way for the city’s largest real estate development – a sprawling, 133-hectare plan that calls for office towers and luxury villas. Critics say the controversial project is a potent example of the land crisis that plagues Cambodia today.

Across the country, communities continue to face disputes over land. More often than not, critics say, it is the rich or well-connected who come out on top.

With that kind of money, we wouldn’t even be able to buy a grave to bury our bodies.
— Im Bunnary

Amnesty International has estimated that 150,000 people across the country live under the risk of eviction; a local NGO, Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, has suggested that 100,000 residents in Phnom Penh have been evicted from desirable central districts to ones on the outskirts of the capital in the last decade. Boeung Kak will likely ensure that thousands more Cambodians are displaced.

In 2007, the government awarded a 99-year-lease for the land to Shukaku Inc, a company connected to a senator with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and reportedly backed by Chinese investors. Since then, residents have been embroiled in disputes with the developer and local authorities over claims to the land. Housing rights groups estimate at least 1,600 families have already moved.

Now, it appears the situation may be coming to a head. In early March, authorities issued eviction letters to many of the remaining households.

They have offered identical compensation deals to all of the families – replacement housing on the outskirts of the city, or a lump-sum payment of $8,500. But many in the community say it’s not enough.

‘It’s not a negotiation; they’re forcing us to move,’ Bunnary says. ‘With that kind of money, we wouldn’t even be able to buy a grave to bury our bodies.’

Empty cities

The dilemma is symbolic of Cambodia’s on-going struggle with land tenure. The Khmer Rouge abolished private ownership when they swept to power in 1975. The ultra-Maoist regime evacuated the capital and forced the population to work in agricultural collectives around the country. When the Khmer Rouge were toppled, those who were able to rushed back to the empty city in a scramble for available land. People lived wherever they could find homes.

By the time Bunnary and her husband arrived in 1985, she says, most of the available housing was snapped up. So they settled around the lake and rebuilt their lives. Other families followed and as Cambodia emerged into peace, villages around the lake grew, forming the ramshackle houses and narrow dirt lanes that line the area today.

But Cambodia is still in the midst of recovery. The infrastructure around land ownership and titling hasn’t kept pace with the country’s economic growth. Land disputes are common; many families still lack legal titles to their homes.

An ambitious project funded by the World Bank was aimed at addressing the issue. But the bank now acknowledges that the project failed the residents of Boeung Kak by excluding them from the land titling process out of hand.

'Deeply troubled'

On behalf of a group of lake residents, housing rights advocates appealed to the bank’s accountability mechanism, its inspection panel, in 2009. What emerged in a series of reports and statements released last week was a damning investigation that faulted the bank for not doing enough to protect the residents.

‘We are deeply troubled and frustrated about the people who are being forced from their homes,’ World Bank president Robert Zoellick said in a statement.

The Land Management and Administration Project, or LMAP, was designed to aid Cambodian authorities with a mass land-titling program and improve the country’s land administration system.

The problem for Boeung Kak residents, however, was that the project effectively ignored land in areas where ‘disputes are likely’. Because the government classified the lake area – originally a park in the years before the Khmer Rouge – as state public land, bank management viewed it as under dispute and did not challenge the government’s assertions that the families should be refused land titles.

Under Cambodia’s 2001 Land Law, residents can apply for titles if they have lived on their land uncontested for five years. Many in Boeung Kak say they meet this requirement or claim they have documents to show they bought the land from local authorities.

But the investigation report released by the inspection panel ruled that the Boeung Kak residents were denied the opportunity to prove their claims.

Project supervisors assumed LMAP safety mechanisms meant to protect against potential evictions were unnecessary in this case, ‘apparently without any careful scrutiny of the matter’, according to the inspection panel.

Instead, LMAP focused on largely rural areas in what one member interviewed by the panel referred to as ‘going for low-hanging fruits’. In this sense, LMAP was a success to its proponents. The project issued more than 1 million land titles to mostly rural residents over the course of its mandate. But despite this, the inspection panel says the program failed to achieve its overarching goal of poverty reduction by providing the security of land tenure for the poor. And it did little to help communities around Boeung Kak.

The edge of Phnom Penh's Boeung Kak lake in 2011.

It wasn’t until 2009 – when rumours emerged that Boeung Kak residents might appeal to the inspection panel, the report noted – that bank management pressed the government about the evictions.

In July that year, the bank called for an end to evictions and asked the government to temporarily suspend the LMAP process until proper safeguards could be introduced. But the government responded by shutting down the World Bank project altogether in September, saying the bank had placed too many conditions on the process.

‘The harm the people have suffered as a result of the evictions and the following displacement … was evident to the panel team,’ the inspection report concluded. ‘The panel found no record that bank management raised this issue with the government or project staff until 2009 when the situation had already deteriorated beyond repair.’

The report noted that management should have been keenly aware that the project had the potential to embarrass the World Bank.

‘Forced evictions are not new in Cambodia and … have been on-going in Phnom Penh since well before the preparation of the project,’ the inspection panel stated. ‘Since the project included major urban settlements … this was a significant reputational risk for the World Bank.’

Thousands more face displacement

For its part, bank management has accepted many of the panel’s conclusions, agreeing that Boeung Kak lake residents ‘suffered serious harm or the threat of harm’ and that the safeguards that should have protected them ‘fell short of expectations’.

But in its official response to the inspection panel’s findings, management noted that it is Cambodian authorities and the developers who are carrying out the evictions.

‘The bank failures neither created nor exacerbated a risk of eviction beyond the risk that would have existed in the absence of the project,’ bank management stated.

The government, meanwhile, continues to maintain that the Boeung Kak area is rightfully state property and that residents are being fairly compensated.

The World Bank is now promising to address the situation by seeking ‘high-level engagement’ with Cambodian authorities to offer ‘social and economic opportunities’ to impacted families. In other words, the bank now hopes to help Boeung Kak lake villagers after their evictions.

I can’t say no to the government.
— Ly Chan

But it’s unclear how far even these measures will proceed. The government has reacted coolly to the bank’s advances since the project’s cancellation 18 months ago. In response to the release of the inspection panel findings, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Land Management was quoted in the English-language Phnom Penh Post last week saying the World Bank was ‘violating Cambodian sovereignty’ in its criticisms.

As the bank itself noted in its response to the inspection panel: ‘There has been virtually no progress on the most significant proposed actions.’

One housing rights campaigner who has advocated for the Boeung Kak residents says the bank must re-evaluate how it helps people who may have been harmed by its projects.

‘Now it may be a case of a little too late, since the bank’s relationship with the government has become poisonous,’ says David Pred, executive director of the group Bridges Across Borders Cambodia. ‘… When you have a government like Cambodia that is unaccountable to its own people and unwilling to accept the bank’s assistance to alleviate the suffering of people who have been harmed, then the bank has little recourse to do anything.’

But it appears the World Bank will face this exact dilemma again sooner rather than later. Since the LMAP project ended, bank management has reviewed its work across the country and identified at least 8,400 households – in addition to the Boeung Kak residents – who have potentially been evicted or are at risk of displacement in other areas in which LMAP had been active.

Patches of tiles

In the meantime, the situation remains uncertain for Boeung Kak families. Authorities are urging the remaining households to settle their compensation claims. For those who do not, the March eviction notice warned that authorities ‘will not be responsible for any loss or destruction of property.’

Ly Chan has decided not to take any chances. Afraid she would wind up with nothing if she didn’t settle, the 59-year-old put her thumbprint on a letter agreeing to give up claims to her home. She says she has found a small patch of land 10 kilometres out of town, but she’s not sure how she or her family will earn money.

‘I don’t want to move to a new place at all, but I have no choice,’ she says, laughing softly. ‘I can’t say no to the government.’

A breeze from the lake blows through the door as she crouches in her second-storey home. The laundry drying on the balcony railing outside is the only obvious sign anyone lives here. The family that lived downstairs tore apart the walls when they left in late February, leaving a crumbling shell where a homeless fisherman and his family are now squatting.

Most of Chan’s other neighbours have departed as well. On this part of the lake’s eastern shore, the ground is dotted with patches of old tiles in place of the homes that stood here before.

A version of this story was first published in The Diplomat.