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Attendees listen to Minister of Land Management Chea Sophara speak at a meeting about the White Building in Phnom Penh yesterday
Attendees listen to Minister of Land Management Chea Sophara speak at a meeting about the White Building in Phnom Penh yesterday. Pha Lina

Minister makes his case to White Building residents

Land Management Minister Chea Sophara extended an seemingly generous offer to residents of the White Building yesterday, though residents remained wary of a proposal to develop the dilapidated architectural icon.

For years, rumours of redevelopment and renovation plans for the White Building have circulated, but it was at the end of last month that Sophara formally announced his intention to tear it down.

More than 550 residents attended a town hall-style meeting at the Ministry of Land Management yesterday to hear Sophara’s offer of $60,000 to $70,000 in compensation for residents’ ownership rights, or the promise of new homes on the same site in three to four years. (Residents spoken to by the Post had previously said they hoped for $50,000 compensation.)

Taking the option to temporarily relocate could result in a bigger payoff for those patient enough to wait, Sophara said.

“You can stay temporarily at [Sen Sok district’s] Toek Thla commune for three or four years and then come back to live at your old place,” Sophara said. “And the value of your home could go up to $300,000.”

Soeung Saran – acting director of housing rights NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, which despite working with White Building residents was not invited to yesterday’s meeting – said that while Sophara’s offer could be acceptable to residents “if it is done in a transparent and accountable way”, many residents are not interested in monetary compensation.

“They either want to keep the White Building or have on-site development,” Saran said. “[Civil society] want[s] to have the information disclosed to the public to see how this building will be developed.”

One resident stood up to voice concern that the project may never be completed, leaving residents stuck in Toek Thla indefinitely. “We are all afraid that the company will go bankrupt, and we are afraid that His Excellency Chea Sophara will be assigned to another position [in government],” she said.

“I confirm to you all that I will not escape,” Sophara said.

Alex Yasumoto – CEO of Arakawa, the Japanese developer tapped to execute the project – held up what he said was a loan offer from a Hong Kong bank for $70 million as evidence of his company’s good standing. Sophara also promised that if just 54 of the 554 families present did not want the project to go ahead, it would not, for fear it would trigger protests.

“Why? Because I am afraid it will look like Borei Keila or Boeung Kak,” Sophara said. “It will affect the company and I will die.”

Additional reporting by Jack Davies

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