Thursday, July 16, 2009

Group 78

Last August I started training for the Angkor Wat half-marathon, waking up at 5 am to run a few miles as the sun rose. My favorite loop was around Phnom Penh's riverfront, circling overly-manicured parks where hundreds of people gathered daily to walk, do aerobics, learn karate and practice traditional Chinese sword and fan dances. In a few kilometers my running buddy and I could get to most of the city's tourist attractions: the Royal Palace, the National Museum, the big casino, the home of Phnom Penh's elephant... The end of our run would take us back behind the National Assembly and by a little community called Group 78. The village of wooden homes, some of them with plastic tarps for walls seemed out of place surrounded by the homes, offices and gardens of the wealthy, one of the last remaining pockets of working class residents in downtown Phnom Penh.

Group 78 will most likely be evicted tomorrow. Under Cambodia's 2001 Land Law, the residents are legal owners of the land after occupying it for more than five years. However, like many other communities along the riverfront, their land has been turned over to a local developer and the police are preparing to chase the people from their homes. After the Land Law was put in place, the World Bank began funding the LMAP program to title all the land in Cambodia. At first glance, this should be good news for poor people who, in theory, should have tenure security and be able to harness the value of their land. Things have not always turned out that way, in this case because in order to ensure the cooperation of the Cambodian government, the World Bank has promised to keep its mitts off any disputed land (like Group 78). In all likelihood, these people will lose their homes and their jobs tomorrow in the name of "improving" the Phnom Penh.

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