PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — When China’s President Hu Jintao visited Cambodia this year, Tep Vanny, a 32-year-old housewife fighting eviction from her family home in central Phnom Penh, set off down Mao Tse-Tung Boulevard to try to deliver a plea for help to the Chinese Embassy.
Among thousands of residents in the Boeung Kak Lake district of the capital whose land has been targeted for redevelopment by a Chinese-financed real estate company, Tep Vanny carried a letter explaining the “sadness and suffering” caused by the project — which has turned Phnom Penh’s biggest lake into a barren, arid expanse of sand — and begging the Chinese leader to “intervene for a fair resolution of our land dispute problems.”
The letter never got delivered. Tep Vanny was driven from the embassy gate by a phalanx of security guards. Other would-be petitioners with land gripes were chased away by police on motorbikes.
China professes a policy of never interfering in the internal affairs of foreign lands. But in Cambodia, growing public fury over land grabs to make way for development projects involving Chinese investors has pushed Beijing to the center of one of this Southeast Asian nation’s most sensitive social and political issues.
“I had hoped that Chinese companies would help bring prosperity and development, but instead they brought only problems,” said Tep Vanny, who has helped spearhead a long campaign against forced evictions in the capital. The campaign has been surprisingly effective, mobilizing a wide array of people against the Boeung Kak Lake project, which is now at a standstill. It is unclear why construction has been halted and when it will resume.
On an official level, relations between Beijing and Phnom Penh are now at their warmest since the 1970s, when China pumped aid, arms and advisers into Cambodia to help the Khmer Rouge, which ruled here from 1975 to 1979 and abolished all land rights in a murderous communist revolution that dotted the country with “killing fields” and left up to a third of the population dead.
That shared revolutionary ardor faded long ago, replaced in recent years by the bonds of profit between Cambodia’s corrupt governing elite and Chinese companies looking for land to build on, rivers to dam, highways to pave and forests to cut down. Parts of this burgeoning economic alliance have brought undoubted benefits to ordinary Cambodians, most notably hundreds of miles of new roads and tens of thousands of jobs in Chinese-owned factories.
But the partnership has also stirred widespread public anger as Chinese investment has helped push hundreds of thousands from their homes. In the southwest of the country, a real estate company from Tianjin is building a casino and resort complex on what was supposed to be protected forestland. At the other end of Cambodia, Chinese investors have been given rights to mine for gold and develop plantations. In all, according to data collected by human rights activists in a survey of just half the country, about 420,000 Cambodians have been affected by evictions since 2003, many of them in relation to China-funded ventures.