The landmark in the north of the city is synonymous with opposition protests, but away from the political stage are some moving human stories. Will Jackson reports on the homeless community whose lives have been uprooted by the authorities’ ban on public gatherings.
Sitting on an old broken camp bed, Pov Soron, 37, this week told of how she became one of the hundreds of ignored victims of the battle over Freedom Park.
Like thousands of Phnom Penh’s residents, Soron is homeless. She has lived on the streets since she was 14, and earns just enough money to survive by collecting recycling.
She said that she had lived in Freedom Park – the 1.2-hectare park west of Norodom Boulevard – on and off for about 20 years.
That was until May 1 when the Phnom Penh Municipality – in an attempt to stymie ongoing protests and rallies – put up razor wire and riot barriers around its perimeter and evicted her from her temporary home.
Soron said the police came about 5am to set up the barriers before they told all the homeless people that were staying in the park to leave immediately and not come back.
“I felt sad and helpless,” she said.
Several former residents said that up to a few hundred homeless had been living in the park. Most moved to Riverside, Wat Phnom or east to the park across Norodom Boulevard. Only a group who worked for Phnom Penh’s waste collection contractor Cintri were allowed to stay. In a statement, Cintri said it was aware of one worker who lived in the park, who had been advised to find proper housing, and added that its minimum wage was $90 a month.
Soron said some people who had returned to sleep in the park had been arrested, loaded in a truck and taken away.
“It happened to us one time,” she said. “We were taken and dumped at Kampong Speu.
“We stayed there for a few months but came back into the city because we could not make any money to live.”
The Phnom Penh Municipality did not respond to emailed questions, including whether people had been arrested or where they were taken.
However, in the past the municipality has been criticised by human rights organisations for rounding up and dumping homeless people and beggars outside the city or confining them in “vocational training centres”.
Soron said she preferred to live in Freedom Park because there was a public toilet where she and her children could wash for only 100 riel.
She added that light from nearby businesses made the park safer at night because thieves were less likely to try and steal her family’s money and possessions while they slept.
Freedom Park has been off-limits to protesters since the January garment worker protests when at least four civilians were shot and killed by government forces, after which a citywide ban on gatherings was imposed.
However, it was only in the lead-up to planned May Day protests that the razor wire and barriers turned it into a no-go zone for ordinary citizens, including the itinerant residents.
CNRP lawmaker-elect Mu Sochua has been waging an ongoing campaign to have the restrictions on Freedom Park lifted by repeatedly visiting the park with her supporters.
The municipality has reacted with increasing ferocity to Sochua’s visits, with helmeted security forces going so far as to beat activists, journalists and even innocent bystanders.
Sochua said this week it was important that Cambodians be allowed to gather and voice their opinions in the park, and expressed sympathy to the plight of the homeless, who include rubbish collectors, motodops, sex workers, drug users and others who can’t afford permanent accommodation.
“Freedom Park symbolises the struggle of the poor, of the marginalised populations including the poor from all over the country,” she said.
“During the campaign protests we had hundreds and hundreds of homeless and disabled people. Some of them veterans of war, disabled, children, some of them on drugs. Also the homeless of Borei Keila. To them, Freedom Park was home.
“[Gathering there gave] them a sense of recognition, relief, a sense that they count and can be part of society. The society pushed them away and marginalised them. Hope – that’s why it’s so important to regain Freedom Park.”
However, Cambodian Center for Human Rights chairman Ou Virak – in a rare instance of agreement with the authorities – said homelessness was a problem but that Freedom Park should not be a place for itinerants to live.
“Freedom Park is there for freedom of expression. It’s not a shelter for homeless,” he said.
“I acknowledge homelessness is a huge problem but it should be taken care of through different means but not through Freedom Park.”
He said the homeless should be helped by charity organisations, such as pagodas, and that the government should look at some sort of welfare to solve the problem.
Homeless man Sok Thirith, 33, said he had lived in Freedom Park on and off since 1998 when his family sold their farm to pay medical bills for his sick mother.
He said the park was a good place to live and he would like to go back.
“The businesses nearby would leave their lights on which made it safer,” he said. “And it was much cleaner than other places.”
Despite the razor wire and barricades, the park is still not completely off limits. It is possible to discreetly enter unchallenged but the atmosphere inside is unwelcoming.
One day last week, a police officer guarded the gap in the riot barriers blocking the Street 51 entrance while others slouched in the shade. Shirtless men kicked around a sey, or hackey sack, while others slept in hammocks.
A few shops are still open but they have few customers.
A woman working at one just inside the barriers, who did not want to be named, said her customers had been scared off by the police and security officers. “Business is very bad now,” she said.
Sia Phearum, director of Housing Rights Task Force, said that instead of shunting the homeless from place to place the government should build them affordable housing.
“The government should work for the poor people and provide shelters,” he said. “They only care about the rich people.”
Soron now lives with her six children and about 10 other homeless families under a flame tree, in the corner between some construction hoarding and a metal fence, a few hundred metres up the street from Freedom Park.
Their possessions collectively include the camp bed, a metal handcart and some bags of old clothes.
She said she didn’t hold out any hope that her life would ever improve. She had been moved on by the police many times before and didn’t believe her eviction from Freedom Past would be the last time. “I just want to live to see my children grow up and get married to people that they love,” she said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY THOR SINA
FREEDOM PARK: FROM OLD CANAL TO PROTEST HUB
Freedom Park hasn’t always been a place reserved for rallies and protests.
The area was originally a canal stretching from the Tonle Sap to the railway station. It was built in 1894 to improve sanitation by filling up the swampy areas.
The canal was filled in between 1928 and 1935 due to a new master plan proposed in the 1920s and 1930s under French town planner Ernest Hebrard. It was turned into a garden, which became commonly known as Suon Psar Chas (Old Market Park).
The area was only designated Freedom Park in 2010 after the Cambodian government enacted the Demonstration Law, which called for an area to be set aside in all provinces and the capital for public gatherings.
At the time most public demonstrations were held outside Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Sihanouk Boulevard home or near the Royal Palace.
Political commentator Lao Mong Hay said Freedom Park was a misnomer because in practice the Demonstration Law violated Cambodians’ right of assembly and freedom of expression by restricting where people could protest.
“That area only became popular after last year’s election [when people started] rallying and camping out there,” he said. “It was only then that it became a symbol of freedom of expression and democracy.”