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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Squatters gear up to begin new life on the plantation

Squatters gear up to begin new life on the plantation

THE first set of families who have opted to exchange life in Phnom Penh's squatter

camps for the Mong Reththy Co.'s palm oil plantation in Kampong Speu are set to move

today.

Ninety-nine families are leaving to start a new life 160 km from Phnom Penh on the

road to Sihan-oukville.

While the company has been trying to entice people away with the offer of housing

and a two-acre palm oil plantation each, it is more fear of a crack down on their

current lifestyle that seems to be motivating the first set of volunteers.

At the same time, community workers report that those who are remaining behind believe

that the people who have taken up the offer are making eviction a self-fulfilling

prophesy.

Pen Thoeun, 45, who has been gearing up for the Dec 25 move said that he decided

to take up the offer because he is scared he will soon be evicted from his current

house by the authorities.

And he added that even if the government was prepared to resettle the squatters they

evicted, it might be on land further into the country side than the palm oil plantation.

"This land [the government] did not give to us and later they will take it back,"

he says.

"I have no money to rent a house in Phnom Penh and I also have no money to build

a house if the government gave us land [for resettlement]."

Thoeun admits the move is a risk and confesses he has not even seen the plantation,

let alone their new house, because he did not have enough money to travel down and

look.

He says he has spoken to people who have seen the houses and they tell him they would

be alright to live in.

Thoeun hopes that he will be allowed to work as a carpenter or building worker in

addition to working on the plantation so he can support his family, though he realizes

work on the plantation will have priority.

"I think that if we are living there we have to do something for [the company]

because they give us land and a house so they have to get a benefit from us,"

he says.

"We cannot do other jobs without first making the plantation for them."

Meanwhile life on the plantation seems destined to be somewhat more sedate than that

in the city.

Thouen says the company wants to keep a tight rein on social problems for those living

in company houses and hence has instituted a number of rules.

"We have to promise that we will not drink too much, no gambling, and not to

have two or three or more wives because they want this to be a modern village,"

he says.

The company has also banned brothels and fighting.

Srey Oun is another squatter planning to move. Again it is less the enticements of

the project, rather the feeling that it is better to go sooner voluntarily than later

compulsorily, when the offers might not be as generous.

She says she also believes the company will want to create a good impression on the

first people to move in.

"If the first group are not helped properly the people will come back and the

next people will not go because they will have learned from the first group [what

it was like]," she says. "I hope that they will take care us."

She added that it might take a while to get used to the more sedate atmosphere after

life in a squatter community.

"I am sure that for the people used to living with a lot of other people they

will find it difficult in such a quiet place for three or four months until everybody

settles down to a normal life," she says.

Meanwhile for the man in charge of the first group, Pheng Song, the prospect of leadership

is somewhat daunting.

"If something happens to them in the future the man that they are going to scold

is me because I brought them there so if it is good I will be very happy," he

says.

The offer and its acceptance has generated strong feelings among those who want to

stay put.

One community worker, who asked not to be named, says she had been threatened by

squatters who see the move as the first step towards their eviction.

"I used to be threatened by a person unknown to me who said that they will kill

us all, even the child in the hammock, if in the future their living conditions become

difficult," she says.

"We are working very hard for them but they don't understand. When we meet with

the Phnom Penh municipality they forced us to convince the people to leave here,

and when we meet the people they threaten us."

Douch Sey, a Solidarity for Urban Poor Federation coordinator says that a billboard

announcing that part of the squatter area is to be made into a park has encouraged

some people to move out of the squatter area but not onto the oil plantation.

She says that since the Phnom Penh authority put up the sign people have been desperately

trying to earn and save money so they can buy some land close to Phnom Penh.

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