Syria in Splinters

Even from the streets of Damascus, it's hard to tell whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or the country's determined opposition is winning the battle for the silent majority.

DAMASCUS, Syria — The calm that has reigned along the Syria-Israel border for 37 years was broken on Sunday, May 15, when hundreds of Palestinians and Syrians stormed across the fence separating the two countries in the Golan Heights and the Israeli military shot four dead. While the clashes were undoubtedly inspired by Palestinians keen to commemorate the nakba, or "catastrophe," of Israel's founding, it may also mark a dirtier phase in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's quest to gain the upper hand over a persistent domestic opposition at home.

It's hard to imagine the demonstrations could have taken place without Assad's connivance. No such protests have been held in past years at the Golan border. Access to the region is tightly controlled, and crowds are not allowed to gather without permission from the government. In Damascus, analysts and dissidents have interpreted the event as a direct message from the Assad regime to Israel, the United States, and its internal rivals: Either we remain in power, or there will be chaos.

Within Syria, the dominant narrative is whether the regime has, as it claims, finally gained the "upper hand" over the two-month-old uprising. This idea was first broached by Assad advisor Bouthaina Shaaban in a New York Times interview last week and has been fueled by reports of smaller attendance at protests and a government promise of "national dialogue" on Friday.

Viewed from Damascus, it is easy to believe that the government indeed has the upper hand. Cars have returned to the streets and people to the cafes -- in contrast to previous weeks, when streets have emptied after 8 p.m. -- and the mood has lightened.

But some Damascenes suggest that the facade is merely because they have gotten used to a "new normal" in Syria. As one local resident puts it: "Whereas a couple of weeks ago we were all in a panic, we may just have got used to the status quo."

That status quo is a growing stalemate between the regime and the protesters, with a silent majority caught between them. It is this crucial middle, consisting of the teachers, doctors, and businessmen of upscale Damascus and the merchants of Aleppo, that Assad hopes to win over by reigniting the Arab-Israeli conflict and through dire warnings of an impending civil war.

Meanwhile, the regime's critics and its partisans are growing ever more polarized. There are few neutral observers: Some opposition activists paint a rosy picture of the Assad regime's imminent demise, while government insiders continue to peddle a line that the protesters are Islamist hard-liners seeking to impose a religious state.

It is possible that the government has the upper hand. Thousands of protesters went to the streets once again last Friday, May 13, but their numbers did appear to be lower than in previous weeks. Through a combination of brute force, military sieges of restive towns, and mass arrests -- with public buildings turned into holding pens -- the government has managed to hold protesters down. Human rights organizations report that more than 850 people have been killed during the uprising, and over 10,000 have been arrested.

One dissident, who has mainly steered clear of the fray, noted that it was still "astounding" that the opposition was able to muster the numbers that it did, given that many towns were pinned down and anyone who protests faces the risk of death. "Last Friday was the worst because there is a sense they [the regime] haven't broken it," says the dissident. "The army and security are stretched and tired, and look how many people are still out."

There is disagreement about how many are taking to Syria's streets. Viewed through the narrow lens of YouTube clips, analysts in Damascus estimated the protesters' total numbers at anywhere between 100,000 to 1 million at the most.

"It is false to put Syria's protests in the same bracket as Egypt and Tunisia," says one local analyst. "But it is equally disingenuous to separate them entirely -- it's of the same inspiration but with different obstacles."

"Every protester in Syria is worth more than each in Egypt because for every one there may be another hundred too scared to do so," says Mahmoud, a 30-year-old office worker.

Syria's opposition movement is geographically fractured, which makes it difficult to judge its strength. Protests are scattered far and wide -- a fact seen as a weakness by some, because it prevents the opposition from uniting into a coherent movement, but also a testament to the widespread dissatisfaction with the Assad regime. From tiny villages along the Euphrates to the third-largest city of Homs, Syrians -- often only tens or hundreds of people -- have gathered. And with 3G Internet access down, news of some demonstrations only reaches Damascus days later.

The calm in central areas like Damascus can also be deceiving. Journalists typically trek around the Syrian capital's old city and then report on the absence of a desire for change when their subjects claim to be satisfied with the current regime. But this is an equally inaccurate picture -- many Syrians do not speak their minds with their friends, let alone strangers.

One notable group that has been conspicuously absent from Syria's protests -- in stark contrast with the uprisings that brought down the governments in Egypt and Tunisia -- is the top echelons of the country's young, well-off, and educated population. Many of these people, who are often foreign-educated, are either connected to the regime, have found a way to navigate its systems of patronage, or quite simply aren't interested in politics. "A bulky strand of middle-class, middle-educated, and politically active people are missing," bemoaned one young Damascene activist.

But two months of uncertainty, in which the government has stoked fears of sectarian strife and now abetted violence on Nakba Day, is taking its toll on a population eager for stability.

"Freedom, what freedom do protesters want?" asked a taxi driver from the southern city of Quneitra who took part in the pro-Palestinian protest on Sunday. "They should be happy with being able to walk around and not have strife all over the place."

But there is also truth to dissidents' and activists' claims that they are playing a long game and that their ranks are swelling. More people have been tempted to join, especially as the economy worsens. Several companies in Damascus have shortened working hours with a pay decrease. Tourism has dropped off, and foreign investors are looking away.

In cafes and taxis, political conversations take place in a manner never before seen in Syria under Assad or his father before him. Some of Syria's elite, which had thus far been insulated from the brutality wielded by the regime, have now been exposed to the reality of how Assad perpetuates his rule.

"I have worked for the government for several years and how can I continue when I see how they have treated the people?" says a female worker in one of the ministries. "I didn't think they would do this."

As the protests enter their third month, the more imminent danger is that continued violence may tempt protesters to pick up arms. Western diplomats in Damascus said there is evidence some already have, which may account for some, though not all, of the 120 police and security officers shot dead. While the movement has been generally peaceful, many in the tribal areas and in Talkalakh, a besieged city close to the Lebanon border where smuggling is rife, own weapons.

Even though the opposition movement faces significant obstacles, activists profess to believe that they're slowly winning over the silent majority that will either make or break their revolution.

"This might be a victory for the counterrevolution for the moment," says the dissident. "But the larger picture is still the same. The regime will go sometime -- but not overnight, in the way the media want. But what has happened so far has been revolutionary for Syria."



The Great Asian Land Grab

How a World Bank program helped displace tens of thousands of urban poor.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia-The murky waters of Phnom Penh's largest lake were once visible out the back window of Cham Pothisak's tin-roof-and-plywood shack. Today, a manmade sand dune taller than the home itself menaces like an ocean wave, filling up his crawlspace basement with putrid water and his family's life with clouds of mosquitos.

It's squalid shelter at best, but in Cambodia, where 80 percent of the population depends on agriculture, logging, or fishing for their survival, land is wealth, and Cham said he has documents proving ownership to the 60-square-meter plot he bought 11 years ago. But now, along with thousands of others, he faces eviction in what may be the largest forced relocation of Cambodians since 1975, when the Khmer Rouge emptied virtually the entire capital. This time once again, it's the arbitrary power of the state at work: The government turned over some of Phnom Penh's priciest real estate, including Cham's land, to a close associate of Prime Minister Hun Sen. Developers are already moving in, pouring sand into Boeung Kak lake to fill it up, flood out shantytown homes, and prepare the site for construction. "It's like they're coming to kill us. They're taking our lives," Cham said. "We're angry but we can't do anything against them. It's like the Khmer Rouge all over again. We're helpless."

It wasn't supposed to be this way. About a decade ago, the World Bank began a program to codify property rights, with the goal of building system akin to what landowners enjoy in the West. The program was meant to make sure that people like Cham could defend their property from arbitrary expropriation. But the initiative has backfired. Instead of helping landowners, it has in many cases actually contributed to their displacement, forcing out residents who may well have had legitimate, longstanding claims to their lands and homes.

Cham's predicament is emblematic of the difficulties of bringing property rights to the developing world. Many development advocates, including at the World Bank and elsewhere, argue that property rights are a vital component of economic growth; they allow landowners to take loans, mortgage their assets, and plan economically for the future without fear of being kicked off their plot. But getting to that point is often messy in regions where overlapping claims are difficult to prove, the laws of the land are rarely enforced, and the wealthy and powerful are easily able to corrupt the system. Usually it's the poor who pay the price.

Cambodians have it worse than most, however, due mainly to the Khmer Rouge, the ultra-Marxist regime led by Pol Pot, one of the 20th century's most notorious tyrants. The Khmer Rouge, whose four years of misguided communist dogma and stunning brutality in 1970s formed the plot of The Killing Fields, outlawed private property and destroyed land records as they sought to create an agricultural utopia. Millions were uprooted from villages and cities, marched into the countryside and forced to build canals, plant rice, cultivate fields, and otherwise help create the Khmer Rouge's vision of a classless society. As many as 2 million perished from executions, starvation, disease or the violence spilling over from the war in neighboring Vietnam. In the aftermath, the thousands of Cambodians who had lost their land struggled to survive as refugees within their own country, squatting wherever they could.

The Khmer Rouge didn't last long; in 1979, Vietnam invaded the country and installed a puppet regime. But their dark legacy lives on, perhaps nowhere more than on the issue of land. The slow transition back to Cambodian rule eventually put power in the hands of Hun Sen, the current prime minister and a wily former Khmer Rouge military commander. Pushed by foreign lenders, including the Asian Development Bank, his government passed a law in 2001 laying the groundwork for a formal system of property titles or deeds to replace the ad-hoc mechanisms that had been built up over the years. The World Bank offered to help, setting up a $24 million Land Monitoring and Administration Program (LMAP) to build a system of hard paper titles and centralized registries. Germany, Canada and Finland also provided support for the effort.

Beginning in the early part of the decade, government surveyors began going house to house in 13 provinces nationwide, asking occupants to prove they owned the property. That proof could vary widely -- anything from a collection of bills to a family record book to transaction receipts that might include the fingerprints of buyer and seller. When the lands in question were marginal, far-flung, or otherwise undesirable, the system appeared to work; the World Bank says that more than 1 million titles were issued under LMAP. But when business interests were tied up with the land claims, for example, in prime areas for logging, sugar, rubber plantations, or real estate development, the system ran into trouble. Landowners whose traditional forms of documentation had been previously considered sufficient found they couldn't apply for titles. Others were left in the dark with little explanation about how the titling process was supposed to work. Then, after losing their claims, they had no avenue to appeal. Landowners who ended up being evicted often received minimal if any compensation, according to the Housing Rights Task Force, an alliance of Cambodian and foreign NGOs.

Land prices, meanwhile, have soared in Cambodia over the past decade. For the well-connected, and even for some members of the fledgling middle class, the boom has been sweet, yielding new capital and income. But it has also fueled what advocacy organizations describe as an epidemic of land-grabbing, with as many as 500,000 people arbitrarily kicked off their lands nationwide in recent years, squeezed into deeper poverty.

At Boeung Kak, where Cham lives, the land rights debacle has played out with particular dysfunction. This 330-acre bowl of sewage-filled water, trash-littered marshes, and muddy shorelines -- right in the middle of the crowded, chaotic capital -- was home to more than 20,000 people as of 2006. In May of that year, villagers and homeowners in the area were notified that the area was to be surveyed, the first step toward determining property rights, and government teams began interviewing landowners. Seven months later, however, Cambodian authorities began claiming the land, bit by bit, as the state's own.

In February 2007, the government granted development rights to a local company called Shukaku Inc., which is reportedly led by Lao Meng Khin, a senator close to Hun Sen. Shukaku wanted to build luxury villas, hotels and high-rent office space; the government offered a 99-year lease for $79 million. Then, in 2008, authorities proclaimed the land was "State Public," under Cambodian law, rendering all the current residents illegal squatters. By August, developers had started pumping sand into the lake. Homes flooded, sometimes overnight, and thousands of residents were forced to pick up and leave. They were offered government compensation, around $9,000 per household, as well as replacement apartments -- either far from the city in poor provinces, where work is harder to come by, or in temporary housing in the city with an open-ended promise for more permanent housing someday. If this didn't convince residents to leave, they faced a different form of persuasion: men, some carrying weapons, began going house-to-house "inviting" owners for one-on-one talks to convince them to give up their land, village residents say. Some carried signs saying "You Must Sell," according to residents.

The World Bank and many foreign embassies publicly called for a halt to all evictions in 2009, and shortly afterward, the government pulled out of LMAP, citing what Hun Sen complained were the bank's "complicated conditions." By December 2010, the government said that more than 2,000 families had agreed to move; their homes are being gradually demolished. Much of the lake has been filled in, and the lake's ecology all but destroyed. About 10,000 people are still fighting the evictions. They argue that the compensation on offer is far below the $3,000 per square meter rate they estimate land is selling for in central Phnom Penh. Tep Vanny, an activist who faces eviction from her own house on the lake's east side, says, "It's a way to keep the people poor, and for them to stay in power."

The government's actions appear riddled with inconsistency and dubious legal rationales. For example, the June 2008 announcement that the lake region was classified as "State Public Land" was never recorded in the national land registry, and the declaration offered landowners no redress, according to the World Bank's own internal inspection report. The 2001 property law also forbids leasing public land to private companies for longer than 15 years -- and even then, the companies are not allowed to make major changes to the plot. This, activists argue, explains why the government abruptly re-classified the lake as "State Private Land," instead of "State Public Land," in August 2008 -- a key distinction. "It does seem that the government changes the rules to fit its narrative," Bret Thiele, of the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, wrote in an email.

Neither Shukaku officials nor Lao Meng Khin responded to written requests for interviews. National and city government officials, including the Phnom Penh governor, officials at the land ministry, and the government's chief spokesman, also either refused to answer receive numerous phone calls or refused to answer any questions about Boeung Kak or the standoff with the World Bank. In a statement released March 24, the city government accused Boeung Kak residents of being "illegal land grabbers."

It's no surprise to see the government of Cambodia behaving badly; the country ranked 154th on Transparency International's most recent Corruptions Perceptions Index. It's the World Bank's role that is perhaps most troubling. Before the government abruptly pulled out of LMAP in 2009, more than 1.2 million titles were issued, which the World Bank argues is a strong measure of the program's success. The bank has also claimed that more titles and strong property rights result in better and more productive farming. But in the report compiled by the bank's inspection panel, dated Nov. 23, 2010, and released in March, inspectors said the program was flawed in its design, violated bank social and environmental policies and safeguards, and may have actually made it easier to evict land owners. The report said that despite problems noted as early as 2006, the bank's Cambodian management team didn't take complaints seriously until 2009. Even worse, a 2006 report commissioned by the German government's aid agency, GTZ -- which worked closely with both the bank and Cambodian land ministry officials -- warned that LMAP was having an adverse effect and predicted some of the very problems that played out in Boeung Kak, according to a consultant with first-hand knowledge of the report.

On March 8, the day the bank's inspection panel report was released, World Bank President Robert Zoellick publicly criticized the Cambodian government for its disrespect for property rights and demanded it stop forced evictions. The bank's Cambodia management team, meanwhile, in an addendum to the report, gave the government an ultimatum, threatening to "(review) all current and proposed support" if it does not cooperate. Currently, the bank has $343 million of funding for 16 ongoing projects. The bank set a 60-day deadline, expiring May 8, for the government to respond to its demands. It has since extended that deadline until Monday, May 16.

Remaining land owners and activists are now holding out for the government to set aside a 15-hectare plot at the lake so they can build replacement houses there, plus possibly more compensation, a position endorsed by the bank. Government officials have so far refused the demand, and protests by residents were broken up violently by riot police on April 21. As of Thursday, May 12, according to Tep Vanny, there has been no movement by the government toward an agreement. 

Ironically, the aim of bringing some measure of a transparent, predictable land tenure to Cambodia ended up contributing to thousands being kicked out of their homes. The result is that many Cambodians end up feeling even less secure in their land rights than they ever did before.

For aid agencies and institutions intent on finding ways to reduce poverty, the lessons are as numerous and nettlesome. Giving a farmer or a fisherman or tailor or a shop clerk a piece of paper that proves they own the land they live and work seems like such a simple concept. But that piece of paper is only as good as the system of rules and laws that recognize its value. In a country like Cambodia, where rules and laws are often seen more as a nuisance than a code of common principles, that piece of paper can end up doing exactly the opposite of what it was supposed to do. And like always, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer: It's only the way it happens that is any different.