Depending on who you talk to, it’s a dangerous eyesore, a reminder of a more optimistic time, a pot-ential tourist draw or simply a home for about 2,500 families in the heart of Phnom Penh.
“When we see a cyclo, we think about Phnom Penh. And when we see the Tonle Bassac building, we think about the city and its past,” resident Ny Bora, 52, says.
She has lived in the landmark structure for about 30 years, but says she can remember seeing it when she was a child, and being startled by its playful symmetry.
Known as The Building by city residents, the structure in Chamkarmon district is home to about 2,500 families, many of whom have lived in it since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, when families returned to Phnom Penh and began occupying abandoned homes.
In September last year, city authorities warned residents of the apartment block that they could be forced to vacate it if it was deemed “unsafe” by municipal housing experts.
In a letter to residents, Phnom Penh governor Kep Chuktema described the 1960s-era complex as “ruined”, telling them they might be forced to relocate.
“To avoid danger, City Hall orders all villagers living [in the building] to stop repairing the building or adding on to 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 decision about the state of the structure, the letter said, without noting when this decision was expected.
Ny Bora wonders why city officials do not see the value the building represents as a tourist site. It would be better to spruce it up for tourists than to evict its residents in order to tear it down, she said.
“I love this building and I want to live in it, even though it looks messy from the outside. When we enter The Building, we feel cool and it is still strong even though it was built many decades ago.’’
The grime-streaked apartment block is one of the few remaining examples of the Khmer modernist architecture that transformed the capital during the 1960s and early 1970s. The architectural achievements that followed Cambodia’s independence from France were, at the time, the envy of the region.
Tann Suyhour, 88, says he has lived in The Building since 1980. “I’ll take my bed and lie down on the road if they try to evict me,” he said, while waiting to offer money to monks making alms rounds.
“I don’t have a title. Authorities did not give titles to the people living in this building,” he explained, urging the government to respect one of the few remaining symbols of an optimistic past.
“Development is not destruction,” he said. “In other countries, they are preserving old buildings to make them attractive to tourists,” he said.
Chamkarmon district governor Lo Yuy said there had been two fires at The Building and that the structure was too decrepit for residents to live in any more.
“It is dangerous for residents. City Hall and district officials have informed them many times to be careful because it can fall down one day,” he said, adding that he does not know yet what will be done with residents after they are evicted. “We need to take time to meet each other, both authorities and the residents, to discuss a suitable resolution,” Loy Yuy said.
“We don’t want to leave them in a difficult situation, so we need to find a step-by-step resolution. We cannot go as quickly as what we want,” he said.
Ouch Leng, head of the land program at rights group Adhoc, said it was up to those in authority to decide what to do with The Building, but they also had an obligation to ensure shelter for residents if they were evicted.
“The government should not evict people living in The Building if it does not have a budget [to compensate them] or new homes for them to go to,” he said.
“Authorities worry about residents’ safety, but they should help provide them with new homes or compensate them,” Ouch Leng said.
Ny Bora said that authorities were intimidating residents by banning them from repairing their homes. “We need to make repairs or make our homes look beautiful. Why don’t they allow us to make repairs?”
“I don’t think authorities have the right to ban us from making repairs. This is not development, it is abuse of the poor,” she said. “Evicting us from The Building will only drive us deeper and deeper into poverty.”