Government and governance, Social policy, Arts, culture & society | Asia, Southeast Asia

6 July 2016

There are concerning developments in contemporary Cambodia, writes Simon Springer, where for the urban poor the present situation is every bit as terrifying as the country’s haunted past.

Cambodia is perhaps most well-known to the world for its troubled history of war and the genocide it suffered at the hands of Pol Pot in the latter part of the 20th century. What few people realise is that the country’s struggles with this traumatic past continue to haunt its present.

Today there is a dark and desperate struggle unfolding in Cambodia’s capital city Phnom Penh, which for all its contemporary inflections in the face of a rapidly changing society, demonstrates a remarkable similarity with the Khmer Rouge’s logic of ‘us-versus-them’ and their use of confinement as an ordering principle for the supposed advancement of Cambodian society.

For the last decade, the so-called “beautification” of Phnom Penh has taken the form of police rounding up and exiling homeless people. Police squads regularly patrol the city, terrorising the people who live on the streets by forcing them out of public spaces and into large trucks. In the past, those who were captured by police were shipped out to the countryside and told never to come back. The homeless were not sent to their communities of origin, but instead they were dumped in random locations deemed to be far enough away to prevent their return to Phnom Penh.

Over the past nine years of researching this phenomenon I’ve talked to hundreds of people who have been victimised by this process. Having no opportunities to make a living in the sites where they are dumped, those without homes would inevitably make their way back to the capital city, sometimes walking hundreds of kilometres for days on end. At least in Phnom Penh they knew they could collect recycling materials to sell or beg for money, and choosing between police harassment and starving to death is an easy decision to make. People obviously opt for the former. Yet in spite of this false choice homeless people have become terrified of the police, and I’ve witnessed their terror first-hand.

In July 2010 I was interviewing a woman in a central Phnom Penh park, close to the site of the maligned Democracy Square, where in 1997 the lives of 17 protesters were taken in a grenade attack that was never officially solved. Her six-month-old baby slept quietly on her lap as we spoke. The relative calm of that moment was broken when other homeless people who lived in the park started shouting that a police round-up truck was approaching.

Lookouts sat in the trees to keep watch, and after notifying their makeshift community that a siege was underway, they jumped down so that they too could flee from the park as fast as possible. I told the woman I was interviewing to be calm and not to worry, that she was with me – a barang (foreigner) – and that the police would not bother her.

I was completely wrong, and she knew it. Tucking her baby up under her arm like a rugby ball, she sprinted across the field in horror to escape from the police. Clearly annoyed that they had been foiled, the officers proceeded to gather together what few belongings these people had.

What happened next enraged me like few other things have in my life. The pile of blankets, pillows, sleeping mats and clothing was doused in lighter fluid and promptly set on fire. It was 2.30 in the afternoon, and we were standing in the centre of one of Phnom Penh’s most heavily used public spaces. Yet this violent atrocity unfolded with an air of banality. The reason for the nonchalant attitude of the police is that it was, in fact, a routine event. What I’ve discovered since that time is such incidents are an ongoing and everyday occurrence.

This game of cat and mouse, exile and return, which began in the early 2000s went on for several years, but around 2007 things took a dramatic turn for the worse. Perhaps realising that hunger screams louder than fear, and that episodes of forced exile were just that – temporary episodes – Cambodian authorities adopted a new strategy. Arbitrary arrest and illegal detention became the new modus operandi. Caging the homeless in what are euphemistically referred to as ‘re-education’, ‘rehabilitation’, or my personal favourite owing to the sheer vulgarity of the suggestion, ‘opportunity’ centres has become the new name of the game.

If there was some sentiment of social responsibility behind this move to detain people, it wasn’t evident in the experiences of the homeless. I have repeatedly heard testimonies describing conditions of near starvation, regular beatings by guards, dire living conditions where as many as 100 people are crammed into a single room with no beds, no mosquito nets, and worst of all, no toilet facilities. Victims of this draconian urban governance strategy have told me that they are kept under lock and key for 23 hours a day, only being let out to eat and relieve themselves on one occasion each day. People complained of human excrement overflowing from the single bucket they were provided and of having to sleep next to piles of defecation and pools of urine. Even more concerning were the stories of detainees being gang-raped by the guards, and the absolutely appalling revelation that prisoners were, on occasion, being beaten so badly that they actually lost their lives.

On 1 June 2016, Prime Minister Hun Sen finally spoke publicly about the now infamous Prey Speu centre, calling for it to be improved or face permanent closure. Despite this promising move after years of criticism from human rights groups, within two days municipal authorities decided it was best to keep the site open.

The most worrying dimension moving forward is that there are whispers of plans for a final solution to Cambodia’s homelessness problem. The rumour is that Cambodian authorities are building a huge facility in Oddar Meanchey, far away from Phnom Penh near the Thai border, from where people will be unable to return to the capital city. While I’ve not been able to confirm this rumour, there is some veracity to the claim given that significant funds have been earmarked for the construction of major prison facility in the remote province.

The fact that such a rumour even exists at all is quite telling. If it proves to be true, it marks a return to the genocidal politics of the past, characterised by a spatial logic of concentrating ‘enemies’ into permanent detention camps. If it turns out to be false, it nonetheless speaks to the level of extreme fear that pervades the lived experiences of the Cambodian poor and a government that has given them every reason to feel persecuted and afraid.

While Pol Pot advanced an anti-urban, anti-rich ideology that targeted the affluent class, in contrast, today in a country caught up in the terrifying grip of a cruel and violent neoliberalism we see an anti-rural, anti-poor bias. What remains the same is the horrifying idea that internment is somehow an acceptable practice in Cambodia. There is an internecine war against the downtrodden and the dispossessed playing out in the country, where the implications for Cambodia’s most vulnerable people, the homeless, are nothing short of apocalyptic.

Associate Professor Springer will deliver a public lecture, Criminalising Cambodia’s homeless: exile and arbitrary detention in Phnom Penh, at Crawford School of Public Policy on Thursday 21 July 2016 from 12.30 to 1.30 pm. Click here to register.

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Springer, Simon. 2016. "Apocalypse Then, Apocalypse Now - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.