A UTHORITIES and NGOs believe that a Vietnamese couple may have deliberately begun
the fire that destroyed 164 shanties of nearly 200 squatter families in the capital's
Daun Penh district on Sept 22.
The charred remains of a young boy were later found in the ashes, the only fatality.
A theory that the pair were paid in a conspiracy to raze what was a community eyesore
has taken firm root - though local authorities angrily deny such a claim.
Photographs of Le Moncheurn and his wife have been circulated by the Urban Sector
Group (USG); and witnesses spoken to by the Post agree that the couple were the arsonists
- and that they had already tried to set fire to two houses in the same community
on separate occasions earlier this year.
One of the houses that Le Moncheurn and his wife tried to burn in April belonged
to Sen Pon, 50, who paid $450 for it two years ago.
Though they were unsuccessful on that occasion - the fire having been quickly spotted
and doused, and the couple evicted - Sen Pon ironically lost his home in this latest
fire after the couple had moved to another house nearby.
"They would be chopped into pieces if they were here now," said Sen Pon
of the couple who had rented a room in his house from which they ran a brothel and
Witnesses say the couple escaped from the most recent fire with all their belongings
At the same time, Van Chorn, a moto-taxi diver, said that he saw three men in military
uniforms rushing away from the house in which the fire began to a nearby car.
He said it was very strange to see three men running away at the same time many people
were rushing to see the fire, and some even trying to help.
Pon said that he could tell that gasoline had been used when he tried fighting the
Squatters spoken to by the Post believe that authorities probably paid the Vietnamese
to start the fire, though no-one admitted having proof for such allegations.
The Post was told that a month before the fire, the Phnom Penh Municipality had told
the community that Prey Sor commune in Kandal Stung, about 15 kilometers from Phnom
Penh, would be made available to them. They were told they had to move.
Leaders from the squatter community rejected the proposal, saying that the areas
was flood prone and too far away from markets and schools.
And before that, in June, police had requested that all the squatters sign a register,
and told them that they were to be resettled at a site in Kompong Sila, on the Koh
Kong-Kampong Speu border.
The squatters - who think that plans to have them moved even pre-dated the June request
- also refused that Kompong Sila plan, saying they wouldn't move unless they knew
what the area was like.
Municipality director of the Chamcarmon district, Lors Ry, said he believed that
gasoline was used to start the fire.
He strongly denied the allegation that any authority would condone anyone burning
out the squatters.
"I don't think that it is reasonable to blame. How can we kill our own people,"
The squatters' woes continued the day following the fire. Police occupied the ruined
land and refused people permission to erect tents donated by NGOs to sleep under.
Around 100 squatters then picketed outside Second Prime Minister Hun Sen's house
- and they said later that police had been threatening toward them.
However, Hun Sen's office ordered police to allow the squatters back on their land
- where they have remained at press time.
Now, authorities say that by next month they must be moved to a new area - the 10
hectare Pongtuk commune in Dong Kor district about 12 kilometers from Phnom Penh.
The USG, however, say that particular block of land has been earmarked for another
squatter group currently living near the Russian Embassy.
Lors Ry, meanwhile, told the Post that his police are conducting an investigation
but he did not know how or when it would end.
He complained too that the squatters were a terrible problem for him trying to organize
the safety and beauty of the city.
"People such as thieves, prostitutes, gamblers, robbers and deserters are uncontrollable
for our authority," he said.
USG has called for quick action, fearing that disease could break out, especially
among the children and elderly.