In 2009, more than 100 police and military evicted one of Cambodia’s most vibrant artistic communities. Six years on, the master musicians who lived at Dey Krahorm remain scattered
The narrow rows of shop houses that make up Damnak Trayoeng are dwarfed on several sides by factories and warehouse buildings. At the village’s western edge, the concrete paving stops suddenly and dusty scrubland begins, giving the settlement the feel of a suburban frontier town.
The village is largely populated by factory workers, market sellers and motodops. Some residents commute to jobs in Phnom Penh along dirt roads and National Highway 3 – if they can afford the two litres of petrol for the trip.
It is not a place that many people would want to call home and few have chosen it as such. Instead, most residents trickled in to Damnak Trayoeng between 2006 and 2009 having sold their homes at Dey Krahorm – a 3.6 hectare informal settlement near the White Building, 20 kilometres away in the Tonle Bassac area of Phnom Penh.
Named “red village” for the colour of the soil that its first residents hauled there in the early 1980s to firm up the then swampy terrain, it was home to perhaps Phnom Penh’s most vibrant community of artists – among them the blind chapei master Kong Nay, who counts Peter Gabriel among his fans.
“There were lots of artists living around my place – ayai singers, classical dancers, comedians …” recalled Kong Nay, speaking from his home in Kampot this week. “I would always play the chapei, and they would clap and smile at the wording that I used,” he added, referring to his renowned talent for improvising witty lyrics.
In 2005, a social land concession deal between the Phnom Penh Municipality and construction company 7NG should have seen the community’s 800-odd families provided with new housing on site in return for 7NG being allowed to develop the remaining land. Instead, villagers endured a four-year period of “intimidation and harassment”.
“Increasingly, the threat of arrest and imprisonment, [became] part of their daily lives,” said a report from rights group Licadho at the time.
The musicians recorded protest songs, held a “musical resistance concert” and inspired Danish band The Chopsticks to release Love and Eviction – an album dedicated to the four-year peaceful resistance. But in January 2009, just as the artists were planning to embark on a solidarity concert tour with their Danish friends, the remaining residents were forcibly evicted by more than 100 police and military police.
To date, plans to build residential properties on the cleared site have not materialised. On Friday, 7NG was not available to comment on future plans.
Visited this week, the buildings at the Damnak Trayoeung relocation site were spotted with relics of the old struggle. In the house of Seun Yikou, Dey Krahorm’s old community chief, a row of fading photos showed residents’ meetings, community votes and – the last photo in the line – village leaders cutting the red ribbon at Damnak Trayoeung.
A few houses down, 35-year-old Rath Sophal pulled a flyer off the wall that told a less sanitised version of the same story. Below the slogan “Don’t benefit from our blood and tears,” written in Khmer, were photographs documenting Dey Krahorm’s destruction, including one of Sophal cradling her daughter amid the rubble of her former home.
Sophal’s family moved to Damnak Trayoeung in 2009. Because they were one of the last families to relocate, and because of disagreement surrounding the size of their land at Dey Krahorm, they were allocated a one-room house shared with four other families. Sophal listed the hardships she faced since the eviction: she lost the capital to run her business; her husband comes home once a week because of the cost of transport to Phnom Penh; her daughter suffers from the effects of the tear gas; her elderly mother has become mentally disturbed; and for three years she had no electricity or running water.
“The relocation site was lacking in even the most basic of infrastructure like water and sanitation,” said Licadho president Pung Chhiv Kek via email last week. “The state has done little to improve this, with NGOs left subsidising the government’s duties.”
Sophal estimated that only about 20 or 30 per cent of Dey Krahorm’s residents lived at the relocation site. Some opted for the financial packages on offer (which Licadho estimated were less than half the market value of their land), many who couldn’t successfully assert their land claims were left homeless, while others moved to Damnak Trayoeung only briefly, preferring to try and rent elsewhere. Some of their abandoned homes have since been given to residents of the displaced Boeung Kak community.
While the struggle of Dey Krahorm’s residents is by no means unique, the community’s artistic infrastructure has added another layer of loss. Childcare, Sophal said, used to mean shooing the children off to spend time with various performers. “We could just send them to join in with classes or to go and see them rehearsing at their houses,” she recalled. “My niece and nephew learned how to dance, and we hoped that they would one day perform on stage.”
Speaking at the offices of Cambodian Living Arts on Thursday, artist development manager Chhuon Sarin said he had similar memories of the time. “When you went into the neighbourhood, you would see dance and hear music being played,” he recalled.
Fifteen years ago, Sarin played an important role in establishing Dey Krahorm as the artistic community it is remembered as. As a young volunteer with CLA, he was part of team searching to find master artists who had remained living in obscurity since the end of the Khmer Rouge. On the tip-off of a friend, he visited Dey Krahorm. “We found four master artists living there,” he recalled. “They were in very bad shape and living in poverty.”
The four were pin peat master Tep Mary, yike master Key Mom, chapei master Kong Nay and folk musician Ieng Sithul. With funding from Cambodian Living Arts and other NGOs including Tiny Toonz, Dey Krahorm quickly became a hub for both formal and informal teaching.
This week, Damnak Trayoeung residents said they were aware of no artists currently living at the relocation site. “After the eviction, most artists moved here together, but it was difficult for them to work because it was so far away, so they moved to live in the city,” said Seun Panha. The son of Dey Krahorm community chief Seun Yikou, Panha remembers regularly attending free dance classes during his childhood. “They couldn’t do their business because this place is so quiet,” he said of the artists.
The decision to compensate Dey Krahorm’s most celebrated residents with more favourable packages also fractured the community. Kong Nay has never lived at Damnak Trayoeung because he was given $52,000 to buy a house in the city. “I don’t know whether other residents were angry with me or not – I just told them that this was the company’s solution,” he said of the deal. “I think they were afraid of bad media publicity and that’s why they gave me the house.”
Sarin confirmed that it has been a struggle to keep the artistic community active now that its members are so disparate. Of the four masters that CLA helped establish at Dey Krahorm, Tep Mary has moved to Kandal province and no longer teaches; Ki Mom is for the most part retired and living with her daughter; and Kong Nay chooses to live in Kampot rather than in his Phnom Penh home. Ieng Sithul, the only master who remains fully active, currently teaches at Sothearos Primary School, having initially relocated his classes to the White Building.
Despite the White Building’s well-known status as a home for artists, Sarin said that the sites were not comparable as teaching spaces. “At Dey Krahorm, they had a wider space, so a lot of the classes were in front of their houses and in the public grounds. You walked in and it felt like a community, whereas in the White Building, it’s more just private housing.”
Former residents are quick to point out that Dey Krahorm was, materially, a far from idyllic place to live, citing problems with crime, overcrowding and frequent fires. “My house was small with many children,” said Sok Ly, a laundry worker who now lives in the White Building. “When we had meals, it always smelled bad from the slum and sewage. We had to cover our noses as we ate.”
Nonetheless, many see the informal ties that blossomed in the community as an uncommon loss. “With the decimation of the Dey Krahorm community, Phnom Penh lost one of its most precious social and cultural assets,” David Pred – a land rights activist who worked closely on the Dey Krahorm case – said via email. “It lost a community of artists, musicians, dancers and comedians that lived and worked together and were a source of warmth and inspiration for each other and their guests.”
Speaking in front of her one-room house, which sits at the dusty intersection of Damnak Trayoeung and the sprawling scrubland beyond it, Sophal said that she will not see the artists who used to entertain her children until next January, when Licadho will organise its annual march to protest the eviction. “Since we came here, our communities have been separated,” she said. “Now our children don’t have the chance to dance or sing at all.”