The removal and resettlement of more than 1,500 families in village 14 of Phnom Penh's
Bassac squatter community by Suor Srun Enterprises (SSE) will begin next month, a
company official announced on November 30.
The decision, which has not yet been announced to the villagers, ends years of uncertainty
about the future of the poverty-stricken area and has local human rights groups calling
for full transparency in the relocation process. Bassac village leaders are demanding
that adequate land be provided as compensation.
"If the company wants to come and build something, they must exchange land in
a fair deal," said Koy Sarith, one of six elected Bassac community leaders.
"If they force people to leave without compensation, there will be problems
because we are many people and we have lived here a long time."
Unlike the recent relocation of villagers on the nearby island Koh Pich, many longtime
Bassac residents admit they have no title to the land. According to Pang Saream,
deputy chief of the Solidarity for the Urban Poor Federation (SUPF), about 70 percent
of the squatters returned to live in Bassac after a devastating fire in 2001 destroyed
the area and displaced more than 3,500 families. The squatters were allowed to return
with the understanding that they would some day be asked to leave. The other 30 percent
-roughly 500 families-are temporary squatters and will receive no land as compensation,
"The squatters will not agree to leave if the new site provided by the company
is not appropriate for living. The people need water and electricity," said
Saream, who has worked in the Bassac area since 1993.
"Even though they do not own the land, they are still being taken from where
they live, do business and go to school. I am concerned that some of these villagers
cannot live outside Phnom Penh. The company cannot force the people to leave without
Known locally as "Sambok Chap," or "Bird's Nest," because of
the fragile, wooden construction of its makeshift homes and businesses, the squatter
village is on the bank of the Tonle Bassac directly across from Koh Pich and adjacent
to the Russian Embassy.
Vannsophy Kong, marketing manager for Asia Real Property Co Ltd, estimates that the
land at Sangkat Tonle Bassac commune is worth at least $350 a square meter.
"The city is developing very rapidly in the southeast section and land values
are skyrocketing. It's clear that with Koh Pich and now Bassac the government and
developers have big plans for this area of the city," said Brain Rohan, technical
adviser at Community Legal Education Center's public interest legal advocacy project.
"What's important is that the development occurs in a transparent way that involves
the people. Traditionally, there has been little to no transparency to these things.
Bassac is an excellent opportunity for the government to begin that process."
Khui Chhor, assistant to the owner of SSE, said the company is preparing to resettle
the residents in January because the dry season will make it easier for villagers
to dismantle their houses. SSE is owned by Suor Pheng, son of the late tycoon Suor
Chhor said the company has prepared 10 hectares of land in Dangkor district about
17km west of Phnom Penh as compensation when the company takes the Bassac land for
development. Chhor would not disclose any development details.
"After leaving, those people cannot return because the company will make a fence
surrounding the land," said Chhor, claiming that the company had held title
to the Bassac land since 1991.
"I don't think we'll have problems with removing [them] because we have already
talked with community representatives and local authorities," he said. "The
majority of those people will not protest about exchanging the land as those people
recognize that they are living illegally. The company will not promise to provide
anything else besides the land."
But Thang Bunlong, head of the Bassac community, said on November 30 that although
the company had sent a lawyer to speak to the villagers twice, there had been no
new negotiations since mid-September. He was not aware of the company's announcement
nor was he informed about the quality of the land allegedly offered as compensation.
"It was not good for them to come and then to stop coming," Bunlong said.
"It has been very confusing. We have been living without knowing when we will
"I am concerned about the move. We will lose our jobs and homes. We need at
least two months to prepare the new site and to find new jobs, schools and build
Chhun Sirun, deputy governor of Phnom Penh Municipality in charge of city development,
said he was not aware of SSE's plan to remove the slum to the new site in January
because the firm did not inform him. He added, however, that a few months ago he
ordered the district authorities to conduct a census of the Bassac area but he had
not received the statistics yet.
Mea Sopheap, Tonle Bassac Commune chief, said the squatters are a "headache"
for the company.
"In the future there will be a new city here and a bridge to Koh Pich,"
Sopheap said. "The government wants to build a riverbank project and a market
area to international standards. They will not let the people live in a mess."
Sarean of SUPF described the Bassac community as "one of the poorest in Phnom
Penh." She says the squatters should only leave if they can find a higher quality
of life after the resettlement.
"We live in a bad situation here. There's no security or sanitation and there
are drugs and gangsters and violence. All that is not good for us. It's like living
in fear," said Koy Sarith. "Even moto drivers will not come in, especially
Members of a UN-established housing rights task force said on November 30 that their
group will be monitoring the relocation process and the examining the rights of all
the Bassac squatters.
"With Koh Pich we saw the first step in providing compensation," Rohan
said. "Now we hope to see a more transparent process in Koh Pich - such as development
plans, public meetings and debate on what is most suitable for everyone.
"It is the people's city. They should have a say in its development."