Tuesday, August 5, 2014


The 'Japanese Friendship Bridge' (aka Chruoy Changvar Bridge in Khmer language)  was a strange sight in Phnom Penh for years. Built in 1966 it towered over the Tonle Sap River, until it was blown up by the communists during the civil war in 1973. For years afterward, it was only a partial bridge. Like a long jump ramp for Evel Knievel, it stretched out over the river, and stopped, far short of the eastern riverbank. It was only a remnant of its former self, much like Phnom Penh.

After the Khmer Rouge fled, the bridge became a popular meeting place for courting couples. In dim evening light, young men would drive their motorbikes out onto the bridge, with their girlfriends on the back seat. They would park, and take in a rather romantic view of the river from atop the destroyed landmark. Eventually young lovers had to find another place to gather, as the bridge was rebuilt in 1995, again with Japanese aid.

Today is a good day for a stroll, so I decide to walk all the way across the bridge. Heading across, I note two inner lanes are for cars, with two outer lanes for motorbikes. A bored policeman sits in a guard shack part way across. His AK-47 rifle hangs by the railing. I remember another 'Friendship Bridge' that I had seen in Laos, but that one hadn't been destroyed. 

Crossing to the river's eastern side, I look under the bridge, and see an odd site. Directly underneath the bridge, huddled like trolls, a fence corrals a small herd of cattle. Beyond the bridges end, the level of poverty is noticeable, even for Cambodia. Homes are poor; some are no more than shacks. I don’t know it yet, but destruction will come to the people who live here very soon.
Rebuilt Japanese Friendship Bridge (photo: Phnom Penh Places)

Days later, I learn that 30 homes of this humble neighborhood were destroyed. Not by war, not by natural disaster, but by demolition crews. Guarded by a herd of civilian and military police, crews came in with heavy equipment, and leveled the homes.  30 families living here lost out. Their houses were bulldozed to make way for a traffic roundabout. Although the homeowners were given warnings about the demolition, some refused to move. All were offered a small plot of land in a distant district, but only 12 families had accepted. The rest turned them down.

I cross the bridge another day to find the neighborhood leveled, just as I'd heard. One of the better looking cement homes in the neighborhood was still standing though. Looking inside, I saw that on the wall was a photo of the homeowner, standing with Prime Minister Hun Sen. Some people have better connections than others.

Human rights groups have been pleading for improved land rights for Cambodia's poor for years. Some property rights laws are ignored, and evicted families are routinely denied due process. In this example at the Friendship Bridge, many families were considered squatters, even though they had lived on this land for more than two decades. During the Khmer Rouge years, most land titles and property documents were lost, so poor landowners and squatters end up being the the biggest losers in all this.
Downstream from the bridge, some Khmers still cross the river on small boats
Land grabbing is nothing new here, it's been going on for years. Take the case of a poor vendor I knew. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, her family came to Phnom Penh and found a large house on one of the main roads. The rich, original owners were long gone. They were probably either dead, or fled the country. The young lady had survived the Khmer Rouge years with her widowed mother and younger brother, so they moved in as squatters. But that didn't last long.

“One day policeman come to our house. He say we have to go,” the vendor told me of that difficult time. “My mother cry so much.”

The family was soon evicted, without due process. After they were forced out, who moved in? The policeman and his family! Years later, he sold the house that he never really owned. “He sell the house for $500,000,” she told me.

Land grabbing continues to be a serious problem in Cambodia. In 2009 the government passed a controversial land law, which allowed the government to expropriate property for 'development', and to take away land to use 'in the public interest'. Rights groups rightly say that the law's vague wording leaves the law wide open for abuse, resulting in bribes for corrupt politicians, and the loss of land for thousands of poor farmers.

The Friendship Bridge squatters aren't just an isolated case. Other forced evictions have been well publicized, and rather than clearing land for government projects, they are often for commercial interests. Unscrupulous developers are reportedly paying unfair compensation to families for land, or even stealing it outright. Businesses owned by relatives of Prime Minister Hun Sen are sometimes involved.

There has occasionally been civil unrest due to this problem. I'm beginning to see for myself, that the present government of Cambodia has little credibility.

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