“I am ready to die to keep my home”
My name is Nim Chray and I am 35 years old. I am married with a 9 year old daughter and I live in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.
A little over a year ago, I was just a fruit seller from the village of Thmor Kol, a small community located along the southern fence of Phnom Penh International Airport.
I never dreamed that one day I would become a land-rights activist. But this changed after June 25, 2013, when local authorities sent a letter to my community, informing us that we had seven days to leave our homes. The reason was to make space for airport development led by the French-Cambodian developer, Société Concessionnaire de l’Aéroport (SCA, also called “Cambodia Airports”).
Authorities also told us that we wouldn’t be receiving any compensation. You can imagine how confused and distressed we were since most of us had purchased our land formally, with the documentation, signatures and thumbprints to prove it.
After receiving notice of our eviction, I was elected to be one of 10 community representatives responsible for negotiating with local authorities. When it became clear to me that they would not halt the eviction process or offer fair compensation and adequate relocation facilities, I began organising protests outside the airport, soliciting help from local non-government organisations (NGOs) including Mr. Sarom Ee who works for Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), and petitioning the SCA to intervene.
When I learned that President Obama was visiting Cambodia November 2012, my neighbors and I painted large “S.O.S” signs on the roofs of our houses hoping to capture his attention as he flew into the country. The day before he arrived, however, the police detained seven of us and erased our signs. The media was there to capture it all so despite the unlawful detention I believe we still managed to get our message across.
Sadly, some of the other community representatives don’t agree with my tactics. One even accused me of being a troublemaker and tried to vote me out of my position. I’m not a troublemaker. I just want to protect my right to own land that I purchased.
Being a full-time land rights activist in Cambodia is not easy. I am blacklisted. I am followed around by the police. And at any moment I can be killed in what the authorities can call an accident.
As an activist, I am lonely. Fearing the loss of his job, my husband left me after his boss at the Ministry of Interior asked him to stop my activism. Now I care for my daughter alone. I fear that something will happen to her on the way back from school, or when she’s at home. If I die, I hope someone will take care of her.
In my own community, few dare to join in protests because the police intimidate them. My neighbors are afraid that if they support me, the police will hurt them or will not give them the documents and signatures needed, for example, to take out loans from the bank.
Despite the danger, the loneliness, and the uncertainty, I can continue my activism because of support from a few committed members of my community. None of us have much. We contribute what little money we can to our cause, but most of all, we contribute our time. Some of the women used to be garment factory workers but they lost their jobs because they took too many days of leave to protest.
We are not alone. NGOs give us valuable support by helping us to monitor the activities of police, providing us with materials for demonstrations, and teaching us about land and housing rights and how to organize protests. Sometimes, I am the only one who can attend workshops, so when I go back to my village, I share what I have learned.
I believe that our collective efforts have not been in vain. On May 22, 2013, we held a demonstration in front of the Phnom Penh International Airport. We also sent a petition to the International Finance Corporation (IFC), asking them to intervene on our behalf.
Because of all this the SCA agreed to meet with us on June 04, 2013. In this meeting, the SCA agreed to negotiate with authorities to offer us fair compensation in the event of an eviction. For the first time, the authorities allowed the media and NGOs to participate. We finally had a voice.
Illegal land-rights eviction in Cambodia is an important issue because without a home, there is no life. If children don’t have a house, they will not feel at home. Development in Cambodia does not have to happen this way. I ask that local and international NGOs pay attention to Cambodia. What the government calls development is really a tragic story about forced evictions.
There is still a lot of work to do. NGOs should continue educating Cambodians about their land rights so they are not afraid to stand up to the authorities, or are cheated out of their homes. The authorities have used community representatives in my village to collect thumbprints, promising money. But no one received money, and no one knew what the thumbprints were for. I am concerned that the authorities will use them to say that my neighbors agreed to their own eviction. This is why being educated on the law and one’s rights is so important.
We also need to build networks with other communities. The more support we have, the bigger our voice can be during protests. We can also learn from the lessons of other communities who have experienced forced land-evictions. Last year, the NGO Housing Rights Task Force (HRTF) took us to Phnom Bat – a “relocation” site where people from Borei Keila, which is another eviction site in the capital, were dumped to fend for themselves. There was no water, no electricity, no health center and no school, and the nearest town was kilometers away. It looked like a desert.
What happened to the Borei Keila community can happen to us if we don’t raise our voice and keep fighting. Since forced evictions occur every day in Cambodia, we can easily be forgotten as another statistic. I urge the international community to consider what I have said. If the current government continues to help large, private corporations displace Cambodian citizens, then it’s time for this government to change.