To understand the bigger picture of the slum fires requires standing back from
the thousands of individual tragedies.
Chhbar Ampoe residents leave their burning community behind.
The municipal government has been quite open about its plans to develop the strip
of land along Phnom Penh's riverside, as far south as Monivong Bridge, and the squatters
likely have no legal right to the land they were occupying.
Chief of the municipality cabinet, Mann Chhoeun, said that the land at Chhbar Ampoe
belongs to the Phnom Penh municipality and has been slated for development as park
The chief of the land bureau at Phnom Penh municipality, Chhuon Sothy, told the Post
that the land at Bassac commune, where the first fire started, is owned by two well-known
Cambodian businessmen: Okhna Sou Srun, who died several years ago, and Okhna Teng
He said the two men were granted title to the land by Phnom Penh municipality in
1990 or 1991. He added that the municipality would not allow the poor people to live
there, since "squatters would affect the tourism industry". Residents at
Bassac commune pointed out a two-month old pipeline built, they said, by Boonma's
company to pump landfill mud from the river.
At best, say some observers, the government's response to the two disasters was unsympathetic,
at worst opportunistic. The municipality banned NGOs from providing assistance at
the sites of the fires, and said they could only do so at the relocation site 20
kilometers outside the city. After days of telephone calls between embassies, NGOs
and the municipality, agreement to distribute was eventually transmitted down to
the municipality's men on the ground.
In the end that made little difference: by the evening of December 3 the last 500
homeless families at Bassac were being loaded onto trucks and taken out to the resettlement
areas. Those whose homes were not burned were breaking down their houses - they
have been given two weeks to leave.
The victims are being sent to two sites: the larger, Anlong
Kngah, is 154 hectares in size and lies 17 kilometers from the city center along
an appalling access road. The other is called Anlong Gong, an equally unprepossessing
spot 11 kilometers out of town along an even worse road. Both are on flood plains.
Access and flooding aside though, experts say that the sites are wholly unsuitable
for settlement in their present conditions and will require six months work to make
them so. There are no facilities, schools, markets, health clinics or job opportunities
of any sort.
Peter Swan, senior technical advisor for the Phnom Penh Urban Poverty Reduction Group,
and an expert on resettlement, says that if the fire victims have no job prospects
at the sites they are unlikely to stay.
He cites the experiences of the victims of the May fire at Bassac commune, when some
500 families were made homeless. They were moved to similarly unsuitable land at
Chungruk, yet more than half have already quit the site. They complain it is too
far from the city and lacks many of the most basic facilities. Swan is concerned
that the same will happen again.
"In terms of poverty alleviation [the Chungruk relocation] has done the poor
no good at all," says Swan. "The UNDP/DfID funded project is extremely
concerned that people's rights on all levels are respected throughout the process
of relocation and throughout the process of development in general."
He believes it would take between four and six months to properly construct 1,000
plots at the relocation site. That represents only 40 percent of the total required.
"With a very basic infrastructure you could set all those plots up by the end
of this dry season," says Swan. "That's the point where you should move
people out. Doing it around them is very problematic. Doing it the right way will
mean some sites will have to have some landfill, some drainage and the access road.
You should develop that first."
He says the best solution would have been temporary housing on an emergency basis
in the Bassac area. That would have allowed people to keep their jobs and send their
children to school.
Lumber yard workers brave heat and falling debris to salvage planks from the Bassac blaze.
"In the meantime we [could have worked] on the sites, which do need a lot of
work," Swan says. "Development processes are long term, and it doesn't
do to put emergencies into the same basket."
Swan agrees there are clear risks that sending the poor out of Phnom Penh and placing
them in undeveloped areas could create a ring of slums around the city.
"It clearly means you will create peripheral ghettos with dense populations
of homogeneously impoverished people. It is not going to be the nice mix of middle
class, rich and poor which gives economic opportunities," he says.
He believes that people will find it very difficult to make a living from the relocation
sites: there are no jobs to be had, and the cost of transport will be out of reach.
"[Transport] will cost them 6,000 to 10,000 riel a day if they haven't got their
own transport. That's a day's income for most of the vendors," he says. "Also
there are no schools and no health services, and with the number of pregnant women
and women with babies, it's really very distressing."
"When you take a group that's very poor and move them away from all job opportunities
and access to all services, and they've got to fall back to living on each other,
then you've got a very vicious cycle. It's like you have in Lima, Rio, Sao Paolo,
where they zoned people almost by income. It is a potentially disastrous scenario
and ignores all the lessons learned in relocation in recent decades. The fact that
the fires have created an emergency does not necessitate repeating solutions that
have been shown not to work," Swan concludes.
Cash demanded for fighting fires - residents
As is often the case after slum fires, residents of Chhbar Ampoe squatter settlement
were highly critical of the behavior of the fire brigade, whose members regularly
demand cash in exchange for helping douse the flames.
One group of Vietnamese said that firemen had told them: "I will not fight the
fire for you if you do not have money. You are not my mother."
Penh Sovann is the local representative of the Vietnamese community in Chhbar Ampoe
commune, the area of the second fire. He had heard the story of the flaming torch
fired from the river, but was unwilling to comment on it. Like many other residents,
though, he was critical of the conduct of firemen.
"Some people paid the firemen up to $5,000 to protect their homes," says
Sovann. "If the firemen had a good heart, the fire would not have spread as
far as it did. They could have cut the fire in the middle of the site."