Officials renege on promises that families would be given a chance to rebuild
RESIDENTS of a Tuol Kork district commune that was the site of a destructive March 8 fire will be relocated to the outskirts of the capital, officials said Sunday, reversing earlier statements that families would be given the option of rebuilding their homes and staying on their current land.
In addition, a May 27 letter distributed to families living in Boeung Kak 2 commune warned that “administrative measures” would be taken to “pull down” any houses rebuilt since the fire, and that officials would “not be responsible for the loss of villagers’ personal property”.
The letter, signed by commune chief Van Sareth, said the homes would be torn down within a week.
Tuol Kork district Governor Seng Ratanak confirmed that all 257 families would be relocated. This would take place, he said, when the 68 families that have not yet agreed to move drop their resistance to the plan.
“We will move them to the new place when the 68 remaining families agree to go as well,” he said, though he did not give a time frame for the relocation.
The fire, which officials have blamed on an electrical short circuit in a resident’s home, destroyed 178 houses as well as 31 dormitory rooms in Neak Von pagoda, leaving 257 families, 181 students and 90 monks homeless.
In its immediate aftermath, local officials told affected families that they could stay in the commune, provided they accept 3.92-by-5.5-metre plots of land – a downgrade for many of the families – and leave sufficient space for the construction of access roads.
Some families have already rebuilt their homes on the site, though Van Sareth said Sunday that the work had not been sanctioned.
“Families who have already agreed to move cannot rebuild wooden homes with metal roofs, and families who have refused to move cannot rebuild without taking measurements from the authorities,” he said.
Relocated families are set to receive 5-by-12-metre plots of land in Dangkor district’s Choam Chao commune.
Duong Sothea, 36, a representative of the 68 holdout families, said they view this deal as inadequate, and that they will continue to lobby officials for the opportunity to stay in Boeung Kak 2.
“Together our group agreed to stay at the fire site even though we will receive smaller plots, so if the authorities now try to force us to relocate we will protest in front of the prime minister’s home and ask him to intervene,” he said.
If the families are forced to move, he added, they will demand “decent compensation”.
A meeting is to be held today between residents and Tuol Kork district officials to discuss relocation and potential compensation for victims of the fire.
Sia Phearum, the secretariat director of the Housing Rights Task Force, said many victims of the fire are concerned that they will end up with nothing.
“Some residents are afraid,” he said. “From previous experience, we know that if they do not relocate they will lose the chance to get some compensation or land.”
Meanwhile, some residents who have agreed to move expressed concern that insufficient progress was being made on the relocation site.
Phal Phorn Nareth, who told authorities she would move with her family to Dangkor district, said she had visited the site regularly and seen little progress.
“Every two weeks I visit the new site to check on the infrastructure system the authorities said they plan to make for us, but so far, there is nothing,” she said.
She added that she does not understand why all the families must wait for the 68 holdouts to agree to relocate before moving.
“Once infrastructure is in place, the authorities should go ahead and send the villagers who have agreed to relocate first,” she said.
Sia Phearum said that, in light of the lack of progress at the new site, officials would have a tough time convincing the holdout families to go along with the plan.
“Here they have schools, electricity, water supply and jobs, which are very important. It is better than at the relocation site,” he said.
He said he will not be surprised if local officials seize the opportunity presented by the fire to clear out the area.
“The local authorities always evict people after there is a fire,” he said. “We don’t want to see the local authorities evict people after the fire because this is a very bad situation. People have lost their homes and their property that they have collected over many years.”
But Ream Samon, another resident who has agreed to move, said conditions are too tough in Boeung Kak 2 in the aftermath of the fire, and that they had ultimately worn her down.
“We are living like animals because the authorities have banned us from building a new home with a metal roof,” she said. “In the daytime it is too hot, and some nights we cannot sleep because of the rainfall.”
Like Phal Phorn Nareth, she expressed frustration that the relocation has not already taken place.
“How long will we have to wait to move to the new place?”