The banks of the Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers in central Phnom Penh are being transformed into what is touted as a people-friendly development project designed to maxi-mize the area's tourism potential.
The banks of the Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers in central Phnom Penh are being transformed
into what is touted as a people-friendly development project designed to maxi-mize
the area's tourism potential.
Bou Saroeun takes a closer look at the project, and finds that a bumpy road
lies ahead to...
Phnom Penh Municipal Governor Chea Sophara has a dream.
Looking at his city of pot-holed, garbage-strewn streets lined with a huge floating
population of beggars, landless peasants and a nocturnal army of fat, sleek rats,
Sophara says that Phnom Penh's rightful ranking as a tourism jewel of Southeast Asia
is just around the corner.
But unlike poverty alleviation, industrial development and the elimination of right-hand
drive vehicles, Sophara's vision of the Phnom Penh of tomorrow is already becoming
a reality along the banks of the Tonle Sap across from the Royal Palace.
Since January, heavy construction vehicles have transformed a once-sleepy spit of
annually-flooded farmland into the centerpiece of Sophara's plan for a city that
he aims to place at the top of the list of Asian tourist destinations.
"The new development plan is very important to attract tourists to view the
city from the other side of the river and to enjoy the new park," Sophara said
of the joint public park/flood dike construction project under way. "This will
help to attract many more visitors to the city in the near future."
The development plan also includes the extension of the riverside promenade along
Sisowath Quay from the Japanese Bridge to the Monivong Bridge four kilometers south.
The plan is designed to maximize public enjoyment of the river's environment while
allowing for the development of restaurants, trade exhibition sites and other business
areas along the length of the route.
Sophara has even got detailed specifications of the varieties of flowers - perennials
that will bloom year-round - slated for planting along the route.
TRICKLE DOWN THEORY
But Sophara emphasizes that the new development is designed to be far more than a
simple aesthetic upgrade of the riverside area. By establishing an attractive pedestrian
link along both sides of the Tonle Sap south of the Japanese bridge, Sophara aims
to improve living standards for communities living adjacent to the development.
That intention has been welcomed by Pich Saroeun, Deputy Chief of Chruuy Changvar
commune near the Japanese Bridge, who says it's the first time that government officials
have paid attention to the development of his area.
"Before we were like a remote area even though we were part of Phnom Penh,"
Saroeun said of previous municipal administrations. "No one had any interest
in helping us."
According to Saroeun, the development has already benefited Chruuy Changvar residents
by tripling land prices in the area, prices that are expected to rise even higher
after the project finishes.
The consensus among the 2,341 families in the area is that Sophara's plan would make
them rich, Saroeun added.
"Our yioun (prosperity) is increasing," a long-time resident of the area
said of the development. "We have been waiting a long time for this."
PRICE OF PROGRESS
But not all people living near the development are as enthusiastic about the effect
it is having on their lives.
The Tonle Sap eastern bank development has caused the eviction of 200 families who
previously occupied the land, while the Bassac development will eventually cause
the dislocation of 1,000 additional families.
While some of those Bassac families are being relocated under a municipal plan funded
by foreign donors, dozens of families are being forced to relocate and re-start their
lives elsewhere after more than two decades of residence in the area.
Those numbers and the human distress they represent have provoked cries of concern
from NGO representatives who work with the city's urban poor.
One of those voices of concern is that of Lim Phai, Chairman of Urban Sector Group's
management team, who says that the breakneck pace the municipality has taken in bringing
the riverside development to fruition is being done at the expense of long-term residents
of the area.
"The Phnom Penh authorities want to develop a beautiful city, but we want them
to develop the city and raise people's living standards at the same time."
Pich Kim Horn, 40, can speak first-hand about the negative effects the riverside
development has had on her and her family's life.
She and 86 other families derived their livelihood since 1992 from small farming
plots on 38 hectares of peninsula owned by the Chruuy Apevat development company.
Now Kim Horn cowers in her hut, a krama held permanently to her face in an attempt
to filter the dust kicked up by the convoys of dump trucks that roar past on what
was once her vegetable plot.
Kim Horn and her neighbors are now demanding compensation of $300 each from the Municipal
Chhoeun Sophy, 28, a Chruuy Changvar peninsula resident, has been forced to start
doing truck repairs since his vegetable plots were destroyed in mid-January.
"We are not against the development project, but they must pay us fair compensation
so that we can live," Sophy said.
OF FISH AND FLOODS
Another controversial aspect of the riverside development project is a land reclamation
project that will involve the removal of a small island opposite the Chaktomuk Theatre.
Chea Sophara justifies the plan on the basis that the island and Chruuy Changvar
peninsula have extended their length into the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle
Sap by 300 meters since 1960.
That expansion, Sophara says, has disturbed fish migration from the Mekong to breeding
grounds in the upper Tonle Sap and Great Lake.
"If we remove the island... I think it will be very good because more fish will
migrate to the Tonle Sap.
But according to a Mekong River Commission (MRC) official, the city's efforts to
remove the island and shorten the peninsula are unrealistic.
"Removing that island will not affect fish migration in any way," the MRC
official said. "Besides, even if they remove the island now, it will just come
back in a few years due to natural siltation.
The MRC has called on the city to postpone the removal of the island and large scale
development of the Bassac's banks pending study of its potential long-term environmental
Increased flooding risks, a reduction in the tonnage of ships able to dock at Phnom
Penh Autonomous Port and a possible recurrence of conditions that caused the collapse
of the Monivong Bridge in 1964 could result from hasty development work, the MRC
Sophara, however, has little time for the MRC concerns, accusing the organization
of making inflated estimates of the cost of the island's removal.
Rather than the $800 million the MRC estimates the work will cost, Sophara says he
can do it for $200,000.
"I am [disappointed] with the MRC because they have done nothing about the island
even though their office is located in Phnom Penh," he said
"I don't want to talk about the MRC."
A future built on other's land?
Khek Vandy's opinion on the Municipality's Chruuy Changvar project is short and
concise: "Give me back my land."
According to Vandy, Funcinpec legislator and husband of Princess Bopha Devi, Chea
Sophara is building his vision of a future Phnom Penh on land illegally confiscated
from himself and fellow investors.
"I was very surprised when I saw on TV and read newspaper stories about the
development on my land," said Vandy, who claims to own 45% of the Chruuy Changvar
peninsula with Cambodian Chinese Association President Duong Chhiv owning the remaining
55% share of the land. "They should have come and negotiated with us first [before
starting work on the flood dike/public park project]."
Chruuy Changvar commune Deputy Chief Pich Saroeun confirms that the land was sold
to Vandy and Chhiv in 1992 by 178 resident families for $4-$7 per square meter.
Saroeun said the buyers never developed the land, allowing local villagers to use
it free of charge to grow vegetables.
Vandy brandishes a Duong Chhiv Import/Export, Tourism and Transport Co. document
dated April 2000 requesting permission to build a 2,500 meter dike on the property.
The request, he says, was ignored as were his demands that the Municipality compensate
him for what he estimates is the $2 million value of his share of the land - plus
interest since 1992.
"Who will dare to invest in this country with land graßbbing occurring
as easily as this?" Vandy complained.
Phnom Penh Municipal Governor Chea Sophara, however, rejected outright Vandy's claims
of ownership of the Chruuy Changvar peninsular site.
"This is state land and agricultural land," he said. "Private interests
have no right to buy it."
Post efforts to contact Duong Chhiv regarding the land controversy were unsuccessful.
Deja vue: plans from the past
Phnom Penh Municipal Governor Chea Sophara is determined to put a bright, fresher
face on Phnom Penh. Dirty, faded building facades are getting their first licks of
paint in decades, while the public deportment of Phnom Penhois - particularly in
unlit parks after dark - is also under his scrutiny.
But as translations of these prakas (public edicts) issued by King Norodom Sihanouk
during the Sangkum Reastr Niyum in September 1958 show, nothing is new under the
sun. The Post thanks the National Archives for their assistance.
"This is to inform all brothers and sisters of the nation that...the father
of national independence has criticized the dirty condition of Phnom Penh, of which
foreign newspapers have also spread gossip about. Therefore, the King has decided
to form a committee to ensure all city streets and buildings are kept clean and attractive.
To assist the committee in its duties, please observe the following:
- Don't litter.
- Don't urinate/defecate in public
- Don't build structures for public vending on sidewalks or on land that you have
no deed or rights to.
- Those structures built in improper places must be immediately removed or will
be forcibly removed.
"The successful clean-up of Phnom Penh will only go smoothly with the assistance
of the people. Don't allow your own interests to hurt the reputation of the King
or the Khmer people. Those who don't respect this edict will be punished according
to the law as a model for others."-The Phnom Penh Cleanliness and Beautification
"Cambodia today has achieved independence by our respected King's hand.
"Now, the King understands that if the country is no longer colonized, the people
who own the country need to act with dignity and be well-dressed in order to be seen
as 'free people'. Therefore from now on all people must wear proper clothes in public.
When you leave your home at any time observe the following:
- Don't wear kramas
- Don't wear sarongs
- Don't leave your home naked.
- Parents must ensure that children are properly dressed before leaving the house.
[Those that do not obey this edict will be arrested and educated in understanding
the value of being free people in an independent country.]
- Phnom Penh Cleanliness and Beautification Committee.
- Please ensure the front of your house is attractive and clean. Plant flowers
- Do not build any unattractive structures on or adjacent your property.
- Do not hang clothes to dry outside your home.
- Householders are responsible for the cleanliness of the sidewalk in front of
- No goods may be sold on sidewalks.
- The Phnom Penh Cleanliness and Beautification Committee.