TOPICS : Urban-rural divide in Cambodia

Phnom Penh’s skyline is set for a dramatic change, now that South Korean companies have confirmed plans to build two skyscrapers in the Cambodian capital. The 42-storey Gold Tower is scheduled to be completed by 2011, while a 53-storey structure will be ready the following year.

Yet such a picture confirms why Cambodia is becoming a country with deep economic divisions, with the economic boom concentrated in only three urban centres - Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville — at the expense of its rural areas, where 80 per cent of the country’s 14 million people live.

A new study by a UN agency lays bare the extent of food insecurity, high malnutrition and the food poor in one of this region’s poorest countries still struggling to put behind it the nightmare of a brutal war and oppression that lasted over two decades. Currently, close to 35 per cent of Cambodians, or some 4.6 million people, live below the poverty line of one US dollar a day. Of that, 90 per cent come from rural areas, states findings by the WFP. “In 2005, over 630,000, or 37 percent of Cambodian children aged under five years were suffering chronic protein-energy malnutrition adds the WFP, quoting figures from the Cambodian Demographic and Health Survey Report.

The appearance of Siem Reap among the 10 provinces described as ‘hot spots’ due to ‘high malnutrition rates’ by the WFP in its mid-February study illustrates the two faces of Cambodia’s development story. For years, the city of Siem Reap has seen rapid growth, with many plush hotels coming up, to cater to the planeloads of tourists flying into the city. Yet the tourist dollars that have been pouring in have not trickled beyond the city’s borders. “Siem Reap is one of the poorest provinces in the country,” Thomas Keusters, head of WFP’s Cambodia office, said. “Tourism is only focused in the city. But only 15 miles away from the city centre, people are very poor.”

Amnesty International (AI) is the latest human rights group to raise the alarm about the harsh measures used by the administration of Prime Minister Hun Sen to support a trend of forced evictions in the urban and rural areas to acquire land for commercial ventures and development projects. It warned that 150,000 Cambodians are in danger of losing their homes and lands to projects that cater to the whims of the country’s wealthiest.

Vireak and Sopheap are just two people from a village of subsistence farmers near the coastal town of Sihanoukville who were affected last April, said the London-based rights lobby. “Most of the village was burned to the ground by law enforcement and military officers, forcibly evicting more than 100 families,” states AI.

“The Cambodian government has adopted policies aimed at improving the lives of the poor. But such policies are in stark contrast to the realities experienced by Vireak, Sopheap and other victims of forced evictions, who sink deeper into poverty through the actions of the authorities,” added AI. — IPS