Southeast Asian Slums Network For Housing Rights Fast economic growth often carries a high price for some of the poorest residents as slums are cleared, sometimes by force. But the Four Regions Slum Network aims to give slum dwellers a political voice.
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Southeast Asian Slums Network For Housing Rights

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Southeast Asian Slums Network For Housing Rights

Southeast Asian Slums Network For Housing Rights

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In developing countries, economic growth isn't always good news for their poorest citizens. Urban planners and commercial developers often clear out vast slums, sometimes evicting people by force. An international network of activists is fighting for the housing rights of slum dwellers. NPR's Anthony Kuhn visited Cambodia, the Philippines and Thailand and sends this report.

ANTHONY KUHN: Workers are pumping sand and water into Phnom Penh's Boeung Kak Lake in the heart of the Cambodian capital. Residents here say developers are doing this to force them out of the ramshackle homes in exchange for minimal compensation. Glassmaker Cham Phutisak looks helplessly at the mud gushing towards his house.

Mr. CHAM PHUTISAK (Glassmaker): (Through Translator) We residents are living through great difficulties now. Sand and water are flooding our homes. We are afraid we might be electrocuted in the water or bitten by poisonous insects.

KUHN: Residents say the developer behind this project is a senator from the ruling party, backed by Chinese investors. Community organizers have lobbied the United Nations and launched protests in Phnom Penh and at Cambodian embassies overseas. In recent weeks, protesting lake residents have clashed with riot police.

Activist Tuol Srey Po says it's hard to unite the frightened residents.

Ms. TUOL SREY PO (Member, Four Regions Slum Network): (Through Translator) Some people are afraid of joining our network. They moved away, feeling our efforts were as futile as trying to break a rock with an egg. Cambodia has only just recovered from civil war, and they don't want to face death again.

KUHN: The activists are members of a loose alliance of NGOs called the Four Regions Slum Network.

(Soundbite of conversations)

KUHN: In Manila, neighbors chat and children play as the fetid green waters of the Estero De San Miguel flow by their shacks. Community organizer Filomena Cinco shows visitors around.

Ms. FILOMENA CINCO (Community Organizer): Around maybe 200 meters away from here is the passage to Malacanang Palace, where our president, Noynoy, lives.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KUHN: The president is your neighbor.

Ms. CINCO: Yeah, that's why the government wants this community to be demolished and be relocated in a far, far place.

KUHN: The government also wants to clean up the estero, or canal, to prevent flooding. But residents don't want to move, says Cinco, because their jobs are here. The community has hired architects to draft renovation plans for the neighborhood. Cinco says that if the government will just approve the plan, the community will come up with funding.

Ms. CINCO: There are slum dwellers who really want to develop themselves, to upgrade their places. The slum upgrading is the best for them, because they know what they want and let the people decide for what is best for them.

KUHN: Denis Murphy, executive director of the NGO Urban Poor Associates, has lobbied Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, who has declared a moratorium on demolishing the slum. Murphy says activists here are inspired by the tactics of Saul Alinsky, the activist who organized Chicago's slums in the 1930s.

Murphy says the slum dwellers carry a clear political message for city hall.

Mr. DENIS MURPHY (Executive Director, NGO Urban Poor Associates): Look, we are hundreds of thousands of urban poor people here, squatters. If we're on your side, governing the city is much easier. If we're the enemy, you'll have no end of problems. Huh? Every time you want to do something, we'll oppose it.

(Soundbite of cheering)

KUHN: In Bangkok, farmers and slum dwellers are camped out in front of the old parliament. There are so many demonstrations of all kinds going on in this city, it's hard for this group to find an empty street corner.

Four Regions Slum Network activist Nutchanart Thantong, says the upcoming Thai elections present her group with an opportunity to press their cause.

Ms. NUTCHANART THANTONG (Activist, Four Regions Slum Network): (Through Translator) At the moment, it's a transitional period. And it's a good time to inform the current government that if they don't solve the problem, they surely won't get our vote.

KUHN: Civil society groups - fighting to make sure development does not come at the expense of the poor - may be taken for granted elsewhere. But their survival has been hard won under authoritarian and post-authoritarian governments in Southeast Asia.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Bangkok.


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