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The Building put on notice

CITY authorities have warned that residents of the iconic Bassac apartment block in Chamkarmon district could be forced to vacate the building if it is deemed "unsafe" by municipal housing experts.

In a letter dated last Thursday, Governor Kep Chuktema described the 1960s-era apartment complex as "ruined" and said residents might be forced to relocate.

"To avoid danger, City Hall orders all villagers who are living [in the building] to stop repairing the building or adding onto the existing building without permission from expert officials," the letter said.

Residents should also "prepare to leave the building to find a new place to live" once experts made a final announcement about the state of the structure, it said. It did not say when such a decision was expected.

The grime-streaked apartment block, designed in the early 1960s by Russian architect Vladimir Boliansky and then-municipal planning director Lu Ban Hap, is one of the few remaining examples of the Khmer modernist architecture that transformed the capital during the 1960s and early 1970s.

Today, the Bassac structure – better known as The Building – is home to about 2,500 families, many of whom have lived there since moving into the abandoned edifice in the 1980s.

Residents said yesterday that they were concerned about the new announcement from City Hall, fearing a fate similar to that of the adjacent Dey Krahorm community, which was violently evicted by police and construction workers in January, 2009.

"I don’t think that the authorities are thinking much about residents’ safety. What they are thinking is just to give the land to businessmen," said Sem Sinoun, 45, who said she had lived in The Building since 1979.

Ear Kry, a 64-year-old resident of Village 2, which occupies the southern half of the 300-metre-long apartment block, also said she had little doubt about the true meaning of the letter.

"They pretended to issue a letter not allowing villagers to repair their homes because they want it to fall down," she said, alleging that officials had taken bribes from businessmen to ready the building for development. Since Dey Krahorm’s eviction last year, the Bassac apartment complex’s future has remained uncertain.

In the aftermath of the eviction, Srey Sothea, the chairman of developer 7NG, which now owns the site, said the company had its eye on acquiring the Bassac apartment complex, though no plans had yet been put into motion.

Then, in October, Chhay Rithysen, director of the Phnom Penh Department of Land Management, requested that seven areas in Tonle Bassac commune, including The Building, be exempted from systematic land titling.

Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Centre, said he feared residents would be forced out, and that many had a right to titles under the 2001 Land Law.

"I strongly believe that these people have a claim to possession rights over the place," he said. "I don’t think that the building is public. It’s lost that function already."

The authorities’ stated concern about safety was positive, he said, but they should focus on helping the community "rebuild the building" rather than force them to move.

Khat Narith, Tonle Bassac commune chief, said the complex had aged badly, and that residents could not continue to make modifications to the structure.

"I don’t know where City Hall wants to relocate them, if the expert officials announce an emergency," he said. Chhay Rithysen declined to comment yesterday. Neither Governor Kep Chuktema nor his deputy Pa Socheatvong could be reached for comment.



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