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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Bleak future for squatter families

Bleak future for squatter families


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

land.

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

Boonma.

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."

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