Saturday, July 18, 2009

Australian Embassy caught in Cambodian shantytown dispute

By Sarah Dingle for AM

Posted Sat Jul 18, 2009 11:39am AEST

Children play in the Boeng Kak slum area of Phnom Penh on February 11, 2009.

For the last two decades more than 60 families have lived in the small shanty town near the Australian Embassy. (Nicolas Asfouri : AFP )

In Cambodia, human rights advocates are outraged at the forced eviction of slum dwellers from a waterfront area steps away from where a new Australian Embassy is under construction.

The city wants to develop the prime land. Lawyers say that military police and workers armed with axes were brought in to evict the last handful of families.

For the last two decades more than 60 families have lived in a small shanty town on the doorstep of the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh.

But now the land, once considered worthless, is in demand, with valuations setting its worth at $US15 million.

This week progress caught up with the families and they were forcibly evicted.

Daniel King is a human rights lawyer working on behalf of the families, known as Group 78.

"On Friday morning the police gathered, 150 police and 150 community breakers who have axes and tools to break up the community," he said.

The Cambodian authorities say the land is needed for a public road as well as for development by a private company.

Ownership rights are hard to prove in Cambodia, where many records were destroyed during the Pol Pot regime.

The United Nations has said it recognises their claim to the land.

Daniel King says the city of Phnom Penh did offer the families small payouts but it also waged a campaign of intimidation.

"Three families agreed to the $8,000 compensation policy, four families who had larger homes they found it an insult to be offered an $8,000 compensation package and held out and negotiated for a $20,000 compensation package," he said.

"However, the city hall decided that one of the families shouldn't receive the $20,000 because he had negotiated aggressively."

The nearby Australian Embassy has been drawn into the controversy.

It has rejected suggestions that the construction of its new Embassy building in Phnom Penh was in any way connected to the decision to evict Group 78.

Sarah Marland from Amnesty International says the Australian Government could have done more to help the families.

"Really their embassy is sitting right across the road from this site and it's just happened right under their noses," she said.

"So I think the Australian Government should be doing more for some of our poorest neighbours."

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