Villagers in Phnom Penh’s Borei Keila community have for years fought against resettlement plans that would pave the way for major construction close to the Olympic Stadium. Now they have less than two weeks to either accept compensation or leave empty-handed, according to a letter issued by City Hall on Friday.
Borei Keila became one of the nation’s most visible land disputes when authorities decided to redevelop the area close to the city centre and brought Phanimex on board in 2007. Mass evictions and years of protests ensued when the developer reneged on a pledge to build new housing at the site, and evictees rejected offers of resettlement to the city’s outskirts as unacceptable.
The majority of residents have since agreed to resettle, but hundreds of families were initially excluded from compensation, and many who accepted claim they were pressured into taking an unfair deal that offered them poor-quality houses far away from any job opportunities.
The last holdouts have until December 22, the statement reads, until “City Hall will take administrative and court measures . . . and will stop the compensation, considering that the remaining brothers and sisters give up their right to obtain compensation”.
But, echoing longstanding concerns, Borei Keila residents said in interviews yesterday that the current offers of compensation left them with no way to make a living.
Ngov Nary, 56, said there were about 30 families left who refused to accept the relocation deal that would see them resettle in Andong village, in Prek Pnov’s Kouk Roka commune on the northwestern outskirts of the city.
Nary, a fruit seller, said she wouldn’t be able to make a living as the new location wasn’t sufficiently developed and was too far from a market, not to mention too far from a school for her grandchildren.
Nary called the two-week ultimatum “coercion” and “unfair”, adding that the community’s long-running protests had borne no fruit. “They have threatened us for years,” she said.
For example, authorities tore off the roof of her room during a past fit of demolitions. Now only a plastic tarp protects her and her family from rain. Another time, residents had to break through a new wall that was blocking the entrance to their rooms.
Still, she said, the ultimatum wouldn’t push her to accept the deal. “We will not go and live in Andong village – even though there is an ultimatum, intimidation or abuse – unless we have proper compensation,” she said.
She said many had already left Borei Keila. “Some villagers . . . were scared they would have nothing, and had no money for protests, so they accepted compensation,” she said.
But unable to find a job in Andong village, some have returned. One, Oeur Sopheak, 31, accepted the compensation last year.
When Sopheak found she was still unable to make the roughly $5 a day she earned around Borei Keila months after moving to the new site, she returned to live with her mother-in law.
Her mother-in-law, Yin Srin, a 60-year old recyclables collector, said she also couldn’t accept the deal.
“Here at least I can collect the recyclable materials to sell for $1 per day, but at Andong village there are no materials to collect, so I will not have any income,” she said. “Life is hard over there. They need to search for snails to survive. There is no hope.”
Soeun Sen Karuna, spokesman for the rights NGO Adhoc, argued that a big part of the problem was caused by the company’s failure to follow through on its promise to construct 10 new buildings at Borei Keila to house evictees. Claiming bankruptcy, the company built only eight, leaving out hundreds of residents.
“There should have been measures to find a solution for the people, but pressure is put on them to accept compensation again and again,” he said, adding that many felt forced to accept what was offered.
Suy Sophan, head of Phanimex Company, which was contracted by the government to build the new housing for the residents in exchange for land, declined to comment on the issue and referred further questions to the city. “City Hall is the one who does it. I have no more obligations there,” she said.
Naly Pilorge, deputy director of advocacy of rights group Licadho, called on the government to protect the villagers. “The government should protect and ensure fair compensation to [Borei Keila] and other land communities as clearly stated in the Land Law,” she said in a message, adding that the municipality had to make sure the company built the two remaining buildings and offered fair compensation.
But Met Measpheakdey, spokesman for City Hall, said that the villagers’ claims weren’t true, and insisted that there was a market and school in the new location. “However . . . authorities cannot fulfil or offer them 100 percent of what they need,” he acknowledged.
“They can or cannot accept – it is their right,” Measpheakdey said.
He said he didn’t know what implementation measures would be taken after the ultimatum, saying it depended on the “real situation”.
Vann Sophat, business and human rights coordinator for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said he expected the holdouts’ housing to be torn down in two weeks, which he hoped wouldn’t escalate into violence. “We hope that both parties will find a non-violent solution,” he said, adding that it was the residents’ right to remain there until the end.
“But immediately after the deadline they will destroy Building F,” he said, referring to the complex where the remaining families live.
But Nary said even if that happened, she would stay. “We will set up tents to live here,” she said.