I remember thinking that eminent domain seemed so unfair when I was taking Property. You live in a place, you own it, it’s your home, and the government can just come and take it, and give you some amount of money that isn’t even the fair market value? Of course, the more I learned, the less I felt that way, but that feeling of injustice lingered.
Then I came to Cambodia. I never thought I knew all that much about this place before I came – I have only been here once before, and that was for a very short visit. My eyes have been opened to a lot of things since arriving. For one, the corruption in this country is unbelievable. It’s not just the police or the legal system, either. Medical doctors pay to get their degrees, hospitals ask for a bribe from insured patients, import/export people have to pay bribes to get their goods in or out of the country, students have to pay bribes in order to go to class, take tests, and graduate…the list goes on. If you can think of a way to be corrupt, you can bet that that type of corruption runs strong in Cambodia. A report from 2008 found that Cambodia is the 14th most corrupt country in the world, and the 3rd most corrupt in the Asia Pacific region; another report that I’ve read more recently said that it is now among the top 10 most corrupt countries in the world.
One of the practices that has been particularly troubling in Cambodia in recent years is land-grabbing. I guess comparing it to eminent domain is not fair, because eminent domain is a legal practice, and land-grabbing is clearly illegal. In 2001, the government passed the 2001 Land Law in a nominal attempt to stop people from grabbing land. However, this law exists in name only; the government is complicit in many of the cases. In January of this year, over 400 families who had lived on a plot of land in central Phnom Penh were forcibly evicted despite their legal claim to the land. They watched as construction men came in and razed their homes to the ground, many times with their belongings still inside. Police were present with tear gas and riot gear to quell any disturbances. Sadly, this story is not unusual.
Today, another settlement of impoverished people living in central Phnom Penh are being forcibly evicted, after living on the land since the 1980s. They are called Group 78. I tried to find the place where they live (right next to the Australian Embassy), but the area was cordoned off and I could not see anything. It was like nothing was happening. Why are these people being driven out of their homes? Because companies want the valuable real estate, but they don’t want to pay the fair market value of the land. Instead, they offer insultingly low prices, and when those are rejected, offer to “relocate” the residents to villages outside of Phnom Penh, into unfinished houses with no electricity, running water, or access to potable water. In this case, each family was offered $8,000 for their land – the total value of the land is $15 million. Even with over 100 families, the company taking this land is paying just the tiniest fraction of what it is worth, while these families will lose their homes, their belongings, their work, and their community.
There’s so much more to all of this than I can possibly write in one blog post. There’s a very in-depth report available here if you’d like to read more about this truly appalling practice. I think of eminent domain now, and I am grateful for it. Of course, I never want to be subject to the government claiming my land so that they can build a highway or whatever other public purpose they have. But at least I know that eminent domain has rules that the government will follow – I will never be awoken at 2 in the morning to see my house pulled down and the remains of my belongings sitting among the rubble. I won’t be arrested and charged with robbery or trespassing for staying in my house after I refuse an unfairly low offer of compensation. I won't lose everything in one day, and then be shipped off to some place 20 km outside the city I have lived and worked in for 30 years, simply because someone wants my land. That’s something to be grateful for.