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Sitting in the shadow of the Sokha Hotel

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A small Cham Muslim community, living on boats moored to the Chroy Changvar peninsula across the river from Phnom Penh, are facing eviction as a result of nearby development. Photograph: Erika Piñeros

The cry of a muezzin broke the silence of a lazy afternoon on Chroy Changvar peninsula. At 3:30 pm the crier rolls his portable minaret along the bank of Tonle Sap, inviting fellow Muslims to daily worship. He stops in front of a makeshift mosque which the men of the Cham fishing community erect and dismantle five times a day, the number of times a pious believer should pray.

In this improvised shrine, the male Cham worship in a sequence of perfectly synchronised motions, as their women pull on white robes and perform ablutions while waiting for their turn.

Until recently, the floating houses of the Cham fishing community have been an integral part of Phnom Penh’s riverside, where 66 families moored their boats, performed religious duties and raised new generations of fishermen. Their modest lifestyle is now in peril from the city’s authorities, who contend that the boats are a blight on the river’s natural beauty.

The Cham, entirely dependent on the river, are confined to the few wooden square metres of their boat dwellings. Whole families fall asleep, dine and work aboard them. Women give birth to their children. A few chickens and cats, two of the few domestic species able to endure the lifestyle, find shelter at night in hidden compartments below deck.

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Policemen oversee the eviction. Authorities argue the houseboats spoil the beauty of the riverbank for tourists. Photograph: Erika Piñeros

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Men gather to pray under the tarpaulin of a makeshift mosque. Photograph: Erika Piñeros

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Women and children sit on the embankment, with the Sokha Hotel in the background. Photograph: Erika Piñeros

The roof provides shade but no privacy, making it difficult for the residents, especially girls, given their Muslim upbringing. Lack of sanitation facilities makes living conditions all the more challenging. The river is their drinking water, their bathroom and their only means of garbage disposal.

“We go fishing in the morning and sell the catch either at the market or here, on the riverbank,” says Sos Sei Nop, a middle-aged woman, gazing at the narrow strip of land behind the newly built Sokha Hotel, where their boats are now docked.

The community moved here a couple of weeks ago, towards the end of the holy month of Ramadan, following the orders from city authorities, who decided that Cham boats don’t suit the modern face of Phnom Penh.

In order to avoid open conflict, the families used ropes and their muscles to tow their engineless boats 500 metres upstream, with the assistance of marine police speedboats. In doing so, they removed themselves from the view of the city side of the Tonle Sap. Two Cham children fell overboard during the slipshod operation, but were scooped out of the river before anything unfortunate could happen.

The commune chief of Chroy Changvar, Chao Sidorn, told local media in the aftermath of the first relocation that his council prioritised the welfare of the Cham people. He argued that development of the peninsula posed a danger to the community in its new location, with the potential for construction debris to fall on the people below.

According to Cham representative Yyu Phat, the community’s conflict with authorities has been continuous for the last two years. He keeps documentation of each dispute carefully preserved in an envelope under the deck.

“First we were forbidden to fish in front of the Royal Palace, and then they told us to move five kilometres away from our mosque and school,” Mr. Phat says, shaking his head in resignation.

Matt Kriya, another representative of the Cham, says that the police don’t employ violence towards the community but, on occasion, the officers confiscate their fishing equipment and catch: “We have to pay 100,000 riel to get it back.”

After rejecting the government’s offer for a settlement, they agreed to hide themselves behind the Sokha Hotel’s edifice as a temporary solution. They are already suffering the consequences of the forced relocation.

“Usually we perform all five prayers a day at the mosque,” says Yyu Phat. “But now we’re too far away and it has become difficult even to go to the market and sell our goods.”

Deprived of the bare minimum they used to enjoy, the Cham are struggling to deal with an uncertain future and are looking for alternatives.

The lack of employment opportunities for the younger members of the group, the majority of them unschooled, makes the Cham jump at every opportunity to glean an income, if only temporarily.

“The garment factory owners who know us call sometimes if they need extra workers for a day or two,” Yyu Phat says.

Ironically, the Cham also offer their services to those who have hastened their expulsion – property developers.

“We go from one construction site to another, asking if they need an extra pair of hands,” says 18-year-old Sor Le Has, adding that being uneducated at her age doesn’t leave her with many options to choose from.

Though the floating community have never been particularly demanding towards the powers that be, they have been brought to the brink of despair. They don’t see the reason behind the officials’ riverbank beautification plan.

“Even if our boats aren’t that pretty, we are a part of Cambodian culture and just another face of the city,” smiles Mrs. Sei Nop.

Her husband says that the Cham would be willing to trade life on the river for a piece of land, decent living conditions, mosques and schools. But he sadly believes it is out of their reach.

“I’m very pessimistic about the situation,” says Mr. Phat, while filing government letters back into their envelopes.

“The authorities don’t care about our lives at all and just want us to disappear. But we won’t move any further away from the mosque.”

“The police come by sometimes to check if we have moved,” he adds, declaring that if worse comes to worst, they will “fight another eviction peacefully and count on NGOs for support.”

However their case hasn’t received any backing, even from Muslim religious authorities, and the fishing community feels isolated.

Sei Nop, who has been listening fervently to discussions about the issue in the media, asks whether it could be arranged to have their plea letter delivered to Prime Minister Hun Sen.

“We have sent a letter to His Excellency before, but it was blocked on the way,” she says.

Waiting for the next development, the Muslim Cham continue to pray in their makeshift mosque, facing a distant Mecca, and more immediately, the Sokha Hotel building.

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