Saturday, January 31, 2009

Corporate Greed and Eminent Domain in Cambodia - (And you thought it was bad at home!?)

There was a pretty nasty incident in Phnom Penh last weekend. And I don’t think it was covered much at all in the United States.

Over 150 families were forcibly evicted from their homes on land that had been sold to Korean construction company, 7NG According to their website:

The in-laws of a good friend of mine lost their home. They still have the title. It was signed by the Prime Minister himself.

Lot of good that did them. Read the story as reported by Amnesty International.

Hundreds left homeless in Cambodia after forced eviction
Over 150 poor urban families were forcibly evicted from central Phnom Penh in Cambodia at the weekend. The vast majority of them have been left homeless.

Cambodian security forces and demolition workers carried out the evictions of 152 families from Dey Kraham community in the early hours of Saturday. At around 3am, an estimated 250 police, military police and workers hired by the company claiming to own the land blocked access to the community before dispersing the population with tear gas and threats of violence.

At 6am, excavators moved in and levelled the village. Some of the families were not able to retrieve belongings from their homes before the demolition. Officials from Phnom Penh municipality were present during the destruction.

Amnesty International called on the Cambodian authorities to stop denying people the right to housing and to ensure adequate compensation and restitution for those evicted on Saturday.

"The most urgent task now is for the government to immediately address the humanitarian needs of these people, who have lost their homes and face imminent food and water shortages," said Brittis Edman, Cambodia researcher for Amnesty International. "They will also need assistance for a long time to come."

The Phnom Penh municipality has provided less than 30 of the 152 families with shelter at a designated resettlement site at Cham Chao commune in Dangkor district, some 16 kilometres from the city centre. Most of the other structures at the site are still under construction and lack roofs.

There is no clean water, no electricity, sewage or basic services. Earlier, most of the affected community rejected being resettled there because it was too far from Phnom Penh, where they work, mostly as street vendors.

Since the forced eviction, the Dey Kraham community has been told that the company, which is alleged to have purchased the land, has withdrawn earlier offers of compensation, leaving families who have been living in uncertainty and insecurity for more than two years, now faced with rebuilding their lives with nothing.

Local authority representatives sold the land to the company, 7NG, in 2005 without the knowledge, participation or consultation with the affected community. Some 300 families were coerced into moving amid threats, harassment and intimidation, while the 152 families continued to dispute the validity of the sale and refused to give up the land without compensation.

Just over a week before the forced eviction, the affected community told the authorities and the company that they were willing to move if they received adequate compensation for the land. Many of them have lived there, uncontested, for decades and have strong claims to the land under the 2001 Land Law. The company then increased the offer of compensation, but the two sides had not yet reached an agreement.

According to 7NG's website:
Through all of our efforts we are building futures for our stakeholders including the environment. Our Corporate Social Responsibility efforts and environmental planning are helping us to be both good neighbors and an environmentally responsible contractor.

As Master Builders we serve the needs of the people, and are happy to be a part of building a better Cambodia.

Sounds nice huh? Regardless of how bad things are at home, they are worse in other places.
Babu (in the Jungle)

Monday, January 26, 2009

Ramblings from the Jungle

26 January

It’s been a pretty hectic 2 weeks here in Cambodia. I arrived on 10 January and I’ve already made 2 return trips to Phnom Penh…each one is 6 hours…or 10 depending on traffic and accidents….mostly ours. (I take a bus, and it’s big and the road is narrow.)

The weather is actually pretty decent. It’s winter over here so the humidity is down and the temperature in the mornings is actually pleasant…usually in the mid to high 70s. But by mid afternoon its been getting into the 80s with just a touch of the humidity that absolutely drops you later in the year.

I’ve been to the mine field twice. It is really amazing to see the differences between now and 2 years ago:

- in 2007 only Aki Ra cleard mines
- Now we have a 5 man team in the field

- in 2007 we cleared in flip flops and sandals
- Now we are equipped with the newest body armor available

- in 2007 new had to do everything very quietly since we were ‘uncertified’
- Now we have full government approval for our activities

The village we are clearing now is called Kokchumbok. It’s led a troubled existence in years past. A lot of fighting went on there, since it was a Vietnamese army camp. We’re clearing right next to their old firing range…lots of lead still laying around. They’ve lost several people. I spoke to a 34 year old woman whose mother was killed when she went behind a bush to use the toilet. The womans husband finally cleared a patch of land they can farm. He cleared it with a knife – on his hands and knees. Imagine.

Aki Ra and Team1 have been there for 3 months and expect to be there for 3 more before the field they identified is cleared of mines and UXOs. It’s grueling work. The area where the mines were laid is now dense jungle. I mean DENSE. You can’t walk into it. We start by cutting down the jungle brush so we can run a mine detector over the ground. (Last week Aki Ra saw his first ‘weed eater’. We bought one and if it works we’ll get another.) Once a mine or UXO is IDed we mark it and blow it up. Aki Ra doesn’t disarm the mines any more, it’s just too dangerous. He told me that every time he did that, he risked his life, and with a wife and 3 kids he doesn’t want to take that risk any more.

I talk to people all the time who want to know how they can help CSHD. There are 2 things we need:

1) We need people to be aware that the landmine problem still exists in Cambodia. Heck, most people can’t even find the country on a map, and the war has been over for 10 years. But there are still 5,000,000 mines and at least 5.000,000 unexploded bombs over here…just waiting for someone to find. We want that someone to be us, and not a farmer or some kid taking a shortcut home from school.

2) But most of all - We need money. Aki Ra thought it would take several years and $1,000,000 to start CSHD. With a lot of help, we did it in 8 months for less than $60,000.

But unless we can sustain it…pay our deminers and staff… we’ll have to fold our tent and go home. It costs us $5,000 to run the operation for a month. That pays salaries, feeds everyone in the field, pays for gas and supplies and leaves a little reserve for unexpected contingencies like blown tires and hidden logs in the rivers we cross that take out your radiator…but I digress.

That’s what we need. And every single dollar you donate saves life and limb. If you want to make a difference…this is where to do it.

I’ve spent the better part of a year and a half over here helping Aki Ra set this thing up. I’ve shut down my business and, thanks to today’s economy, run through a good deal of my savings. But Jill and I don’t regret a penny spent, a gray hair earned, or a moment not spent together. We can’t think of a better legacy to leave than a safer world for those who follow us.

If not now - when
If not us - who

Bill Morse
International Project Manager
Cambodian Self Help Demining

Founder & President
Landmine Relief Fund

Ps: And please pass this Blog on to your friends. Anybody know a movie star looking for a cause?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Inauguration Night in Cambodia

Siem Reap, Cambodia

On Tuesday the 20th, as I walked the streets of this small tourist haven in the north of Cambodia I was asked by several people, Americans, Euros,Japanese and Cambodians where they could watch “our president” take over the helm of the United States.

It was a surreal day. All over town the talk wasn’t of the growing economic crisis in this country, the lack of tourists, or the continuing friction with neighboring Thailand over the temple of Preah Vehear. It was about the hope and the expectations the world has for Barack Obama and the return of the United States to leadership in these trying times.

The inauguration happened at midnight here and I, along with at least 100 others gathered at the Warehouse Bar to watch the festivities. As Barack entered the stands a cheer went up, and when he took the oath of office you could people all over town cheering as hundreds gathered in different restaurants and bars to watch the vent.

You could hear a pin drop during his speech.

I’ve been traveling the world for several years now, from Peru to Nepal, Tahiti to Cambodia and it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to call myself an American and not have to defend my country. Today I can say I’m from the United States and people smile and tell me how happy they are that Obama is leading the world to a better time.

As I left the Warehouse at 1am, a tuk tuk driver came over and said “Obama is okay”.

Imagine that, people all over the world watching the US with hope and happiness instead of fear and loathing.

It was a good time to be an American.

I’ve waited my whole life for a time like this.

Babu in the jungle

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama is in Cambodia too

Siem Reap, Cambodia
8pm Tuesday, 20 January 2009

All day long I've been meeting Americans, Europeans, Japanese, Aussies and Khmers who want to know where they can watch the inauguration of 'our new president'. Last night I had dinner with some new friends from Brisbane and they told me about hope they have that Mr. Obama can lead America and the rest of the world to better times.

It's 4 hours until the inauguration. Several of the pubs in town are having Inauguration Parties. They start at 10. The inauguration is at midnight here and the parties will go until we all need to go home and get ready for work tomorrow. Several people I know rested up this evening for the parties.

I haven't met a person here who doesn't know who Obama is. One bar is selling kramas (the traditional Khmer scarfe) with Obamas likeness on it. T-shirts that say Obama are plentiful, and not just on Americans.

And I'm in Cambodia. Imagine.

It's been a long time since I've been able to say I'm an American and not have to defend my country. Everyone is so excited. Even with the problems the world faces. (It's pretty brutal here. Last January it was shoulder to shoulder tourists inside Angkor Wat. Today it's deserted. The tourists aren't coming and people are starting to get worrried.)

But as I said, even with the problems the world faces, economic woes, wars, etc., people are hopeful again and optimistic that maybe the worlds greatest democracy has found itself - at last.

Off to the Party of the Century

I'll let ya know how the inauguration was over here later.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Bus Ride to the Jungle

4 days after leaving Palm Springs, and 30 hours in the air and in transit I’d decided to take the bus to my final destination and save almost $100. Heck, $100 paid 10 days in my hotel.

It was a very interesting bus trip…to say the least!

We left Phnom Penh at 0830 and were due to arrive in Siem Reap, Cambodia sometime around 1300 (1pm) Saturday afternoon. You’re never quite sure when you’ll arrive depending on the traffic. Now traffic here is a bit different than traffic in SoCal. Where the I-5 may be backed up because of a traffic accident or Caltrans work, Hiway 6 in Cambodia gets clogged when an oxcart or several turn over. It’s an hour by air, and a ‘scheduled’ 5 hours by bus.

The trip was pretty uneventful for the first few hours. We made our stop in Kompong Thom, a small town in central Cambodia, just north-east of the Tonley Sop lake. We got to stretch our legs, get something to eat, ice cream, crickets, spiders, or soup…whichever you prefer. Then we headed north for the last 2 hours of the trip.

About 1.5 hours south of Siem Reap I heard the tires screech and several people scream when we hit a man on a motor scooter…head on. I was in the back of the bus reading a book and couldn’t see out the front. Being on the right hand side of the bus, I did have a very good view of the poor guy careening off the side of the road. His moto ended up on top of him and the bus came to a lurching stop on the side of the road. The guy had been going down the wrong side of the road and tried to cut in front of the bus, I learned later.

Several of the riders and some locals ran to his aid, and amazingly he stood up and walked hesitantly away from the quite damaged motorbike he’d been riding. It appeared that he’d broken his arm and had a scalp wound, but otherwise he seemed okay. The locals lookied him over and immediately put him on another moto back to Kampong Thom where there is a medical clinic.

Then the interesting part of the trip started for the rest of us.

Our driver hopped off the bus pdq and as fast as he could ran down the road into the countryside and disappeared. Over here, when you are the drive and hit a local, you run the very good risk of getting the crud beat out of you by the victim’s friends.

So we were left by the side of the road, on a running bus with no driver. And when the local police showed up, who knows.

We got off the bus, and discussed among ourselves exactly how we should deal with the situation. We had several options. We could wait for the bus company to send another driver or, more likely, another bus to pick us up. Or we could try and ‘flag’ another ride. We opted for the latter.

A few minutes later we saw the ‘local’ bus coming up the road. That’s the one that stops at every village on the highway, but eventually got to our destination. He stopped and was only partly full. We dragged our bags off the first bus, stuffed them (pushing and kicking to make room) onto the local and climbed on board. It cost us an extra $2, a total of $13 to get to our destination.

Still beat the $100 by air.

Travel is such an adventure.

Babu in the jungle.