Sitting and waiting for customers in a 3-by-3-metre stall with two big cooking pots on a concrete table, Choun Kemlon, 52, and her husband have rented a small wooden stall to sell food at 1,500 riel (around $0.37) to local garment workers around Dey Thmey Boeung Krapeu Market for the last four years.
“When the market was not yet developed, I could sell 10 kilograms of Khmer noodles each day,” said Kemlon. According to her, the couple earned $25 a day.
In the last few months, Kemlon, along with many other vendors, were excited to learn that the owner of the land planned to remodel the bustling food hub, promising higher profits.
Kemlon watched as the open-air market was covered with corrugated metal roofing, and the dirt floor was covered with cement slabs that would relieve the persistent flooding during the rainy season.
“When the new development was announced, all vendors were very happy. We were told that the monthly rental stall fee would be only increased by twofold. Thus, I initially [paid $300 upfront to reserve my spot],” she said, adding that she was glad to be rid of the problem of floods that hindered her sales.
With such a development, and the added value of being surrounded by crowded garment factories, she was just one of the many vendors who rushed to pay a few hundred of dollars to reserve their spots. When renovation of the market was almost finished, she moved back to her allotted space and patiently waited for revenue to pick up.
However, just as the hope of making more money came, according to her, so did a new rental hike far beyond what she had been promised when she initially paid for a prime spot at the front of the market.
The previous cost was just $25 a month but at present, the landowner is charging $180 instead of the promised $50, she said.
“Now, I am very worried, not because I cannot sell anything – customers are still the same – but the surge of rental price has taken away my profits,” she said.
“I have no will to sell anymore because I am constantly worried and stressed about the rental bill,” she said.
It is not only Kemlon who worries about her livelihood. Other vendors are concerned that a compromise between the market developer and the vendors cannot be made after the unwelcome surprise rent hike.
Selling porridge for local garment workers and earning just $5 profit a day, Chan Sothea, 37, demanded that the market owner lower the monthly rental fees by 50 per cent.
“I requested to the market owner to rearrange the monthly rental fee based on the Ministry of Economy and Finance guidelines related to taxes and utility payments,” he said. Sothea’s stall is deeper within the now shaded market, and his rent has risen from $10.25 to $60 after the rental spike.
While it appeared that business would go on as usual, the vendors finally amassed in a protest that led to a strike, demanding that the landowner meet with their grievances. Since the protest earlier this month, their demands have yet to be met.
Meanwhile, the dispute has led to accusations being thrown around of inside players fomenting unrest.
Heng Kemseang, owner of the market, asserted that he spent over $100,000 for the market development, partly financed through a bank loan. In order to repay his debts, he claimed that he had no choice but to raise rental fees.
“It is privately owned. If [vendors] think it is too expensive, they have the right to not rent a stall from me. I will speak with them and find a solution,” said Kemseang, who refused to give any detailed information on the actual scope of the project development.
Han Linda, however, the niece of Kemseang, rallied on her uncle’s behalf and said that the protests have been instigated by Vietnamese renters who have threatened her because they refuse to pay any rental fees.
“A vendor who was worried of losing her stall threatened to kill me if a solution is not found. After she got seven stalls, she complained about the surge in rental fees,” said Linda.
Nevertheless, she said that the vendor had already resold two stalls for $3,000 to $4,000. She claims that if the rest are not provided “they will cut my head,” she said.
Linda claimed that Roth Sopheap was the one who threatened her. She also claimed that Sopheap’s husband, Chom Sarath, is Vietnamese. Responding to this accusation, Chom Sarath, acknowledged he had booked seven stalls, but denied that he is either Vietnamese or that his family had threatened Linda.
“She can say whatever she wants. I am Khmer. I will find a solution later with who accused me of being Vietnamese. I have an ID card and I am also a soldier,” said Sarath.
Regardless, Linda asserted that local authorities and people nearby have supported the development of the market which aims to reduce pollution and ease traffic.
“Local village authorities in the Damnak Thom 2 village think that the development has made the market a nicer place, and locals living in nearby boreys have also supported me. Only a small number of vendors have a problem,” she said.
Seang Sarun, chief of Damnak Thom 2 village, who is aware of the market development and the dispute, said that the project construction began in November 2015 on 756 square metres of land that could accommodate 100 stalls after the landlord suggested the development following the Khmer New Year.
“The local authorities appreciated his initiative in order to help vendors, thus we supported his idea to build a clean environment for vendors with good infrastructure,” said Sarun.
However, he admitted that the landlord had not sought any construction permission from authorities in Phnom Penh.
“He has no construction permit; he just sought a compromise within the commune because he needed to repair it. If you knew how polluted the market was, you would understand the concession,” he said.
However, the local authority is not aware of the specific amount of investment that has gone into the project, and does not pay much heed to the rumours that have sprung up.
A spokesman at the municipal office for the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction (MLMUPC), said he was unaware of this market development, but warned that all construction projects must obtain permission from the authority.
“Construction projects smaller than 500 square metres need permission from the district office. For construction projects of 500 to 3,000 square metres, permission shall be granted by the General Department of Construction, while construction projects larger than 3,000 square metres need to obtain direct permission from the MLMUPC,” said Sarin Vanna, Director of the General Department of Construction at the MLMPUC.
“If any developer has not applied for permission, district authorities shall issue a notification to halt the construction progress. In the case of a construction project which has not obtained legal permission, local authorities will sue the building developer and demolish the construction,” he added.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, in June 2009, had ordered a temporary ban of undisclosed period on any market developments in the capital following a series of strikes by vendors against market developers.
In spite of this, over the last seven years there have been ongoing tensions between market developers and vendors, which have led to protests and clashes, not unlike this particular one.
Meanwhile, as these vendors wait for their demands to be met, Kemseang believes he can still broker a deal that would benefit his investment, the vendors and the area that he believes is in dire need of infrastructure improvement.