PHNOM PENH – When floodwaters swept a chunk of riverbank into the Mekong just south of the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, Sun Ramaly managed to save her clothes and her kitchen utensils. Her one-room shack, however, crumbled into the river.
Along with a handful of families whose meager possessions were also washed away in 2002, Ramaly collected any scraps of timber and tin she could find and walked up the riverbank to find a place to rebuild.
“We are from the lowest economic class. We don’t have land, so we don’t have options,” Ramaly said.
Since then, Ramaly has lived in Smor San — a slum built in a cemetery that is still visited by relatives of the deceased. But with about 500 people and an estimated 200 graves, the living far outnumber the dead.
Her home is a single-room corrugated-iron shack standing on stilts over a mix of plastic waste. Just across the river is Diamond Island, the jewel in Phnom Penh’s fast-rising skyline.
Four decades after the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime abolished private ownership and destroyed all land records, Cambodia is in the midst of a property boom.
Over the years, the capital’s slums have been emptied — sometimes by force — scattering the urban poor in larger settlements on the city’s fringes, where sanitation, electricity, jobs, schools and health care are harder to come by.
Today, more than 25,000 families live in 277 urban poor settlements around Phnom Penh — perched over swamps and sewage canals, squeezed alongside railway lines or, in the case of Smor San, sharing space with the dead.
Superstition runs strong in Cambodia, where the national religion, Buddhism, is flecked with animism.
According to these beliefs, the dead must be cremated in order for the spirit to be released and reincarnated — otherwise it remains stuck between one life and the next.
The graves at Smor San are mostly Chinese and Vietnamese, and contain uncremated corpses. So, for Cambodian Buddhists, disgruntled spirits roam endlessly.
“Despite being afraid, we moved to the cemetery to live with ghosts,” Ramaly said.
In Cambodia about 6,400 new construction projects totaling more than $12 billion were approved in 2017 and 2018, according to CBRE Group, a global real estate and investment firm.
At the center of the land rush is Phnom Penh, which is undergoing a complete makeover.
Built as a low-rise city with breezy boulevards, public gardens and fringed by rich wetlands, the capital now resembles a giant building site with more than 100 construction projects underway in the city center alone, according to CBRE.
The drive to development has seen lakes and wetlands filled in, ministry buildings in prime locations offloaded under controversial land-swap deals, and open areas — including the city’s Freedom Park — sold off for development.
“The city is expanding and the price of land is increasing; urban poor communities will (continue to) be (ousted) from the city,” said Soeung Saran, executive director of Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), a non-profit that maps the city’s slums.
“More and more people will be evicted.”
Almost all of Phnom Penh’s slum-dwellers are landless, with no claim to where they live, according to STT, with at least 15 percent of families “under pressure” of eviction — the fate, on average, of almost 10,000 city residents a year since 1990.
Signs of development
Although the residents of Smor San have not been told they will be evicted, the tell-tale signs of impending development are all around: temporary accommodation for workers, heavy machinery, surveyors and men in business shirts.
And there have been overtures.
In April, municipal officials ushered a group of residents to Andong, a resettlement site for communities displaced by development, about 90 minutes’ drive across the city.
Ramaly did not go — she left the inspection to others. None of them were impressed with what they saw: concrete blocks of dormitory-style, single-room dwellings with low tin roofs baking in the sun.
All refused to move, residents said.
“It’s like living in a cage,” said Um Sam At, a 25-year-old mother-of-two who visited Andong.
In Smor San, purple flowers grow out of a garden that she dug into a grave in front of her tiny, tidy stilted home, which is built from scrap materials.
Nearby is the home of Chhay Ly, who also has two children. With a tomb inside the courtyard of her home, Ly said she would “rather live with ghosts.”
A city hall spokesman said that there are no plans to develop the cemetery site- which is on state land — or to force out the community.
“Authorities just want to take good care of the community,” said spokesman Meth Measpheakdey. “We are still talking, offering them better living conditions in Andong, but most refuse to go.”
Many of the residents currently living at Andong had no choice — they were subjected to violent evictions at the hands of state security forces, in some cases after huge fires swept through inner-city slum areas around the time Ramaly’s home was swept into the river.
STT’s Saran said he is hopeful that the government has moved beyond such tactics, and that the Smor San residents will get cash to help them move out of the cemetery and rebuild their lives.
But, having been shunted from one place to another for as long as she can remember, Ramaly is less optimistic.
“When you are landless, you are powerless. All we can do is survive until the next problem arises, and then deal with it,” she said.
After living with ghosts for 16 years, Ramaly no longer believes they exist. But she is counting on the superstitious nature of others to protect the slum community she helped to establish all those years ago.
“I don’t believe that the government would dare to destroy the graves in order to develop. That would be a sin, and it would attract bad karma.”