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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Fire linked to land grab say residents

Fire linked to land grab say residents

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fire.jpg

THE victims of the July 9 fire at Sihanoukville's Tomnoup Rorouk Port suspect the

blaze was deliberately set to clear their land for development.

Scavengers search through the debris while family members look for possessions.

About 183 families slated for resettlement to make way for the port development project

lost their homes and nearly all their belongings in the fire. Residents told the

Post that firefighters demanded substantial payment from them before making any serious

attempts to save their homes.

The fire started around 1:30am. Witnesses said they believe the fire was set beneath

a warehouse, built over the water, owned by the Rasmei Bophea company. They said

because of dampness, it was unlikely a fire could have taken hold there without the

help of gasoline.

As the fire quickly swept through the densely packed community, the victims, mostly

poor port workers or fishermen, fled from their homes with only the clothes they

were wearing and their children.

Those who managed to rescue some valuables from their homes said they later lost

them to looters in the chaos.

Residents said though it was a miracle that no one was seriously hurt or killed in

the inferno, they have been left destitute.

"Now we have some donated rice, but we don't have a pot to cook it," said

Chun Chan Thon, 48, one of the victims sheltering at a local school.

Chan Thon said as the flames spread people ran door to door yelling: "Fire!

Fire! ... Leave!" She was so shocked and frightened it was all she could do

to save her six children and 70-year-old husband. Everything else was lost.

Thai Vanson, a 31-year-old fisherman was at sea the night of the fire. He returned

to port the next morning to discover his house had been destroyed and he did not

know the fate of his three young children and wife.

"I prayed to God to help my kids and my wife. It felt like my soul had left

my body as I tried to reach my family as soon as possible," he said.

His children and wife survived but all his property and possessions were destroyed.

Vanson said he is one of the poorest villagers and just barely scraped by on the

meager income of a laborer.

"Here we have to buy everything ... firewood, water, electricity. If I have

no help we will die of starvation," he said.

Vanson said he bought his 24 square meter plot of land for 40,000 baht (about $1,100)

and doesn't know if he will receive any compensation for it after resettlement.

There is a great deal of anger among the residents at the extortion attempts by the

firefighters. Residents said firefighter demands for money caused serious delays

and allowed the fire to get out of control.

A woman told the Post: "I asked [the firefighters] to spray water on my house

when the flames got close. But they asked me, 'how much money do you have?'

"I told them I could give them my necklace which is worth about one damleng

of gold [about $360], they rejected it, saying it was too small. I cried and I begged

them, but they still ignored me."

She said she lost about $3,000 dollars worth of property to the fire and she is angry

that the firefighters cared only for money and not the lives of the people.

Ros Sarath, 48, said that some people began to take things from their homes, but

when they saw the fire truck they thought their houses would be saved.

But the firefighters stalled and negotiated for more money and the flames ended up

consuming everything, he said.

Sihanoukville's Second Vice Governor Puth Chandarith said he had heard reports about

the conduct of the firefighters.

"It is a rumor you know. But there is no evidence," he said.

"In a society like this, I cannot confirm yes or no. But people have complained

to me and I will take this matter to the Governor's Council and the Chief of Police

to try to investigate more."

He said because there were many firefighters on the trucks it will be hard to identify

the guilty ones.

Chandarith said local authorities were now concentrating on providing humanitarian

aid. The Sihanoukville Red Cross donated 10 tons of rice and distributed 50kg and

one egg to each family. And aid from the Cambodian Red Cross was expected to arrive

shortly.

Chandarith said they want to relocate the villagers back to their previous home sites

as soon as possible.

"But they will not be allowed just to build wherever they want. We will draw

a plan for them."

On the morning after the fire authorities tried to put up fencing around the site

of the destroyed houses without first consulting the people. Infuriated residents,

believing they were being prevented from rebuilding, pulled out the posts.

"The reasons we do this," said Chandarith, "is we want to see the

area of the port that we are going to use to get the goods out. If we are going to

build new houses there, why don't we do it in a proper way. Before there was no fence

and the kids would run across the road and there were a lot of accidents."

He said residents were wrong to believe they would not be able to rebuild there.

"It is just a misunderstanding between the people and us.

"When they stay here in the school some things are being destroyed here, and

they have no toilets, so we want to move them back as soon as possible," said

Chandarith.

He said provincial authorities have formed a committee to develop a relocation plan

for the residents of the area as the city wants to use their land as part of the

port redevelopment project.

"We don't know how long this will take as we have to move the people in a proper

way," said Chandarith.

"We have aid to extend the port there so we need their land for the development

of light industry which will provide work for people.

"But the people who lived in that area lived in a swamp. They polluted the water

and everything"

He didn't know what kind of compensation package was being contemplated for the residents

the authorities want moved.

"This point is beyond my ability now to answer, but the Government will try

to solve the problem to the people's satisfaction. Whether they are going to compensate

or build new housing, I don't know."

Chandarith said the police have suspects in the case. "Of course this is arson.

Military Police and the police department have gathered clues already and they know

of four or five people."

Residents hold the Rasmei Bophea company responsible for the fire and have asked

local authorities to help them receive justice.

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