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Eviction looms for Bassac squatters

Eviction looms for Bassac squatters

The removal and resettlement of more than 1,500 families in village 14 of Phnom Penh's

Bassac squatter community by Suor Srun Enterprises (SSE) will begin next month, a

company official announced on November 30.

The decision, which has not yet been announced to the villagers, ends years of uncertainty

about the future of the poverty-stricken area and has local human rights groups calling

for full transparency in the relocation process. Bassac village leaders are demanding

that adequate land be provided as compensation.

"If the company wants to come and build something, they must exchange land in

a fair deal," said Koy Sarith, one of six elected Bassac community leaders.

"If they force people to leave without compensation, there will be problems

because we are many people and we have lived here a long time."

Unlike the recent relocation of villagers on the nearby island Koh Pich, many longtime

Bassac residents admit they have no title to the land. According to Pang Saream,

deputy chief of the Solidarity for the Urban Poor Federation (SUPF), about 70 percent

of the squatters returned to live in Bassac after a devastating fire in 2001 destroyed

the area and displaced more than 3,500 families. The squatters were allowed to return

with the understanding that they would some day be asked to leave. The other 30 percent

-roughly 500 families-are temporary squatters and will receive no land as compensation,

Saream said.

"The squatters will not agree to leave if the new site provided by the company

is not appropriate for living. The people need water and electricity," said

Saream, who has worked in the Bassac area since 1993.

"Even though they do not own the land, they are still being taken from where

they live, do business and go to school. I am concerned that some of these villagers

cannot live outside Phnom Penh. The company cannot force the people to leave without


Known locally as "Sambok Chap," or "Bird's Nest," because of

the fragile, wooden construction of its makeshift homes and businesses, the squatter

village is on the bank of the Tonle Bassac directly across from Koh Pich and adjacent

to the Russian Embassy.

Vannsophy Kong, marketing manager for Asia Real Property Co Ltd, estimates that the

land at Sangkat Tonle Bassac commune is worth at least $350 a square meter.

"The city is developing very rapidly in the southeast section and land values

are skyrocketing. It's clear that with Koh Pich and now Bassac the government and

developers have big plans for this area of the city," said Brain Rohan, technical

adviser at Community Legal Education Center's public interest legal advocacy project.

"What's important is that the development occurs in a transparent way that involves

the people. Traditionally, there has been little to no transparency to these things.

Bassac is an excellent opportunity for the government to begin that process."

Khui Chhor, assistant to the owner of SSE, said the company is preparing to resettle

the residents in January because the dry season will make it easier for villagers

to dismantle their houses. SSE is owned by Suor Pheng, son of the late tycoon Suor


Chhor said the company has prepared 10 hectares of land in Dangkor district about

17km west of Phnom Penh as compensation when the company takes the Bassac land for

development. Chhor would not disclose any development details.

"After leaving, those people cannot return because the company will make a fence

surrounding the land," said Chhor, claiming that the company had held title

to the Bassac land since 1991.

"I don't think we'll have problems with removing [them] because we have already

talked with community representatives and local authorities," he said. "The

majority of those people will not protest about exchanging the land as those people

recognize that they are living illegally. The company will not promise to provide

anything else besides the land."

But Thang Bunlong, head of the Bassac community, said on November 30 that although

the company had sent a lawyer to speak to the villagers twice, there had been no

new negotiations since mid-September. He was not aware of the company's announcement

nor was he informed about the quality of the land allegedly offered as compensation.

"It was not good for them to come and then to stop coming," Bunlong said.

"It has been very confusing. We have been living without knowing when we will

be moving.

"I am concerned about the move. We will lose our jobs and homes. We need at

least two months to prepare the new site and to find new jobs, schools and build


Chhun Sirun, deputy governor of Phnom Penh Municipality in charge of city development,

said he was not aware of SSE's plan to remove the slum to the new site in January

because the firm did not inform him. He added, however, that a few months ago he

ordered the district authorities to conduct a census of the Bassac area but he had

not received the statistics yet.

Mea Sopheap, Tonle Bassac Commune chief, said the squatters are a "headache"

for the company.

"In the future there will be a new city here and a bridge to Koh Pich,"

Sopheap said. "The government wants to build a riverbank project and a market

area to international standards. They will not let the people live in a mess."

Sarean of SUPF described the Bassac community as "one of the poorest in Phnom

Penh." She says the squatters should only leave if they can find a higher quality

of life after the resettlement.

"We live in a bad situation here. There's no security or sanitation and there

are drugs and gangsters and violence. All that is not good for us. It's like living

in fear," said Koy Sarith. "Even moto drivers will not come in, especially

at night."

Members of a UN-established housing rights task force said on November 30 that their

group will be monitoring the relocation process and the examining the rights of all

the Bassac squatters.

"With Koh Pich we saw the first step in providing compensation," Rohan

said. "Now we hope to see a more transparent process in Koh Pich - such as development

plans, public meetings and debate on what is most suitable for everyone.

"It is the people's city. They should have a say in its development."


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