The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Why I’m calling them Freedom Fries

Dressed in all black and sitting against the doorframe, Sok Chenda was crying. She had separated herself from the rest the group and plopped herself down in the darkest part of her neighbor’s apartment.

Her community had invited members of the French community to hear the stories of how they had been forced from their homes at the urging of French government.

Sok Chenda had been living in the building since 1979, but thanks to a 2001 agreement between the French and Cambodian governments, her family and at least 36 others have agreed to leave, but only after an organized regime of intimidation and misinformation.

In 2001, France paid Cambodia one million Francs for, among other things, the Cambodian government to relocate the families away from the Lycee Francais Rene Descartes, Cambodia’s oldest international school. France wanted the school to expand to fill the whole building just like it did before the Khmer Rouge.

The families, who had been ordered to live there by authorities in 1979, 1980 and 1981, were offered compensation by the Cambodian government, but the residents and civil society groups complained that the amount was woefully inadequate and so the community tried to hold out for better terms and a bit more time. After police threats and requests for French help were ignored, every family felt they had no choice and signed away their homes.

Most of the families are now being moved to plots on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where they have not even had time to finish the construction of their homes.

Forced evictions are nothing special in Phnom Penh. One recent estimate says that since a 2001 land law, one in 10 families in Phnom Penh has been relocated by the government.

But the Lycee Francais Rene Descartes is different. The French government has a moral—if not legal—obligation to help.

According to the 2001 agreement, if there are problems with the eviction process—and I’d say there were some problems—the French government is supposed to be notified. To me, this implies that the French government acknowledges some complicity in the forced evictions. Yet, the French government has done nothing, at least not publicly, to help the community.

Sok Chenda came back to the room overflowing with students, parents, journalists and other residents. She sat in the corner with four other women residents, and as they heard their stories translated into French, they sat silently and cried.