issue 229 - March 1992
Offending the eyes
of the mighty
When the Olympics came to South Korea, the poor had to be removed from view.
The same happened in Bangkok when the IMF and World Bank came to town.
But where did the squatters end up? Stephen Webb tells a tale of two families.
Shin Ko wakes shivering with fear and calls for her husband. Evicted from three homes in the past four years, she lives in dread of another demolition crew throwing her family onto Seoul's uncaring streets, of again seeing her husband beaten by thugs with iron bars.
South Korea's govemment has brutally 'redeveloped' her life, demolishing it along with the walls of her home and leaving only the debris of empty cans, cardboard boxes, letters, rags and shoes.
Shin Ko was a victim of the 1988 Olympic Games, which were preceded by a mass eviction programme. Hundreds of thousands of Seoul's poorest people were forcibly removed so that a new Olympic village could be built. Shin Ko's home was bulldozed because it was visible from the path to be taken by the Olympic torch.
But this was not her first eviction. The first was in 1987 when the demolition force came with knives, baseball bats and iron bars. Riot police arrested those who resisted - like her brother, a construction worker, who was imprisoned for eight months.
Since the Olympics the family has been evicted again in one of the most violent clearances of recent years. Shin Ko and her husband were one of 800 families attacked without warning at four in the morning by 5,000 police and knife-wielding thugs who drove them from their squatter settlement around the Supreme Court of Justice.
Shin Ko's experience is far from unusual in the Third World, where rural people have been flocking to the cities for decades, drawn by higher-paying jobs and the prospect of better education for their children. As cities have become more overcrowded, land prices have rocketed, leaving the poor with no alternative but to resort to squatting. This is now one of the main forms of housing in many developing countries; between 20 and 40 per cent of people in the world's largest cities are squatters. And the situation is likely to worsen over the next decade, with over 300 million poor people expected to move into Asia's cities.
Govemments find it hard to provide the new arrivals with the basic services they need - and all too often their response is simply to clear the poor out of the way. Take Bangkok. Here, as in Seoul, evictions have increased dramatically in scale and severity during the past five years. At least 10,000 people are evicted annually without compensation and there are 1.3 million people in slums or squatter settlements who live in constant fear of eviction.
The Thai Government is committed to broadening home ownership to include more middle-class people and regularly-employed blue-collar workers. But the poor have been left to the mercy of the property market. While well-off families often own more than one home, the cost of even the cheapest new housing is well beyond the reach of the two million urban poor.
So they rent in slum areas - like that near the new Convention Centre where the IMF and the World Bank met in October 1991. Prior to the meeting Bangkok newspapers reported that 647 families or over 2000 slum dwellers were to be evicted because, according to the authorities, the slums were a 'good hiding place for terrorists'. Bangkok's Deputy Governor said the slums were an eyesore and would shame the country in the eyes of foreign delegates.
The Government initially set aside no land for relocation of the small community and allowed for no compensation. But at the last minute slum dwellers weru given $240 and told to rent land cleared on state-railway property out of sight of the Conference Centre. While her husband struggled to build a new home on this land, Noi and her six-month-old daughter found themselves sheltering under an expressway with 60 other families. Her house had been cleared to make way for a shortcut to ease traffic during the IMF/World Bank deliberations.
Huddled in a tent, Noi's baby developed respiratory problems caused by the combination of damp with dust and fumes from the expressway. The authorities reneged on their promise to provide water and electricity. Sanitary conditions soon deteriorated. And Noi's family went into debt when her husband missed work while building their new house. Today the house is still only half built. Noi remains in the tents with her children, apprehensive about the future.
Shin Ko and Noi are just two among hundreds of thousands. If they could speak directly to their governments, they would doubtless try to explain that shelter is a basic human need. Without it, everything else from schooling to health care becomes impossible. But governments see only the numbers on the page; see only the eyesores which must be removed from view in the interests of international respectability.
Stephen Webb is an Australian journalist who specializes in South-East Asian affairs.