RESIDENTS of a Tuol Kork district community devastated by a March 8 fire have prevented district authorities from tearing down newly constructed wooden homes, prompting officials to warn that those who are rebuilding homes on the site are breaking the law and could face arrest, villagers and rights groups said.
Sia Phearum, secretariat director of the Housing Rights Task Force (HRTF), said several dozen police arrived in the community, located in Boeung Kak 2 commune, on Saturday with the intent of removing the new structures, and that they were rebuffed by villagers.
“The local authorities told residents they would not be allowed to rebuild their houses; if they try to rebuild, the local authorities will use force to take down the houses,” he said.
A joint statement released the same day by the HRTF and rights groups Licadho and Adhoc said residents had been warned that they would “be arrested and construction equipment and lumber would be confiscated” if they continued building new houses.
Following the blaze, which destroyed 178 houses and 31 dormitory rooms at Neak Von pagoda, local officials told residents that they could rebuild in the commune, provided that they accept 3.92-by-5.5-metre plots of land – a downgrade for many of the families – and leave sufficient space for new access roads.
But in a May 27 letter distributed to the families, officials said anyone caught rebuilding at the fire site without official permission risked being subjected to “administrative measures”.
Sia Phearum said Sunday that local officials had used the blaze as an opportunity to grab land.
“In many cases we find that fire is used as the main reason for eviction,” and local authorities are now trying to force the residents to sign “contracts” promising that they will stop rebuilding at the fire site, he said.
Sok Chea, a 43-year-old resident, said that her husband, Korng Savan, and her two sons were physically forced to thumbprint a document agreeing to cease reconstruction of their house.
“On Saturday, Deputy District Governor Thim Sam An and Boeung Kak 2 commune chief Van Sareth grabbed hold of my husband’s and sons’ hands and forced them to put their thumbprints on a contract which promised they would stop rebuilding our house, and they threatened to arrest my family if they resisted,” she said.
The trio were then photographed by the district authorities, she added.
Nov Phalla, 48, said she refused to thumbprint the contract despite intimidation from the authorities.
“The authorities threatened to arrest us and confiscate our construction equipment if we continue to build a temporary shelter without their permission,” she said. “But we are not frightened by their threats. What we are scared of is not having a house to live in.”
Government officials denied the residents’ claims on Sunday. Thim Sam An, Tuol Kork deputy district governor, said no arrest threats had been issued, though he confirmed he had asked residents to sign a contract stating that they would cease building homes.
He added that any reports of intimidation were false.
“We did not threaten anyone with arrest, but we have certainly banned them from making houses because this land is state property,” he said.
He said that he will meet today with the 170 families that have agreed to move to 5-by-12-metre plots of land in Dangkor district’s Choam Chao commune, in order to set a date for the relocation.
“After we relocate these 170 families, we will seek some kind of reconciliation with the ... holdout families and urge them to also relocate,” he said.
But residents and housing rights advocates have criticised the relocation site, saying it lacks infrastructure and is prone to flooding.
Duong Sothea, a representative of the 68 families who have refused to move there, said they would continue to resist relocation and planned to protest this morning in front of City Hall.
“Since the fire we have been living with the fear of being forcibly evicted from our own land,” he said.
“We need intervention. The Phnom Penh governor must urge that a resolution be found for us soon.... We cannot live under tarpaulin roofs in temporary shelters when there are heavy rains almost every day.”