After years of rumours about Phnom Penh’s iconic White Building’s impending demolition, the Ministry of Land Management yesterday gave its strongest indication yet that the rumours will come to fruition.
Though the building’s death warrant is not yet signed, ministry spokesman Seng Lot said last night that the age of the building means “it could not be repaired, it needs to be demolished and a new one built on its site”, adding that the ministry is studying plans for such an eventuality.
Land Management Minister Chea Sophara hung up on a reporter yesterday, but in an interview with Radio France International earlier this week reportedly said he expected the project to cost in the ballpark of $30 million, and that residents would be formally notified of the ministry’s plans next week, and given the option of either accepting a buyout or temporary relocation to Toek Thla commune.
In the interest of “resolving the problem fairly”, Lot said the ministry will first conduct consultations with residents to gauge their openness to buyouts or relocation, and to determine the size of each resident’s unit within the building.
Residents yesterday said that Land Ministry officials informed them on Tuesday that they are to be removed from the building to make way for a Japanese development project. Hun Sarath, village chief of block one of the building, said he was informed of the decision by ministry officials at a meeting on Tuesday.
“We got information we are going to [Sen Sok district’s] Toek Thla commune from an official at the Ministry of Land Management,” Sarath said. “They told us this is a Japanese project and they gave us two choices: one, living in temporary accommodation in Toek Thla, although we don’t know exactly where; the second is selling, if people don’t want to move into temporary accommodation.”
The majority of residents the Post spoke to yesterday said they favoured the latter option, but most also said they would prefer to stay where they are to continue the lives they have built for themselves in the city centre, many of them for decades.
“We’re happy to hear that the new [Land Management] Minister Chea Sophara is working with Japan to develop here, because it is an old building. But we want to sell our house for a good price; we could accept it if we could use the money to buy a house nearby in the city,” said Hor Oun, 60. “I’ve lived here for nearly 30 years – everything is in this house. I really love this place and community.”
Preparing snacks and sandwiches for sale at a small stall outside her apartment, 50-year-old Lin Da was equally reluctant to leave the place she has called home for almost 20 years.
“Yes, this house looks very old and dirty, but it is a very wonderful place for us to live in,” she said. “I live in a good community, we’re used to living with each other and we always help each other. I make my living selling small things in front of my home.”
If she did have to relocate, like many of her fellow residents, Da would prefer the move be permanent. “I do not want to live in a new place temporarily, I want to buy it,” she said, noting that it would cost upwards of $40,000 to find a new home, and even that would mean leaving the city centre.
Relocation and compensation is a nightly topic of gossip in the White Building, she said, and the residents have agreed to their limits: “If they offer us $30,000, we won’t take it,” she said.
Sia Phearum, executive director of Housing Rights Task Force (HRTF), said many residents he spoke to were after compensation packages as high as $70,000, but he doubted they would get that much. “I think if it’s really a Japanese company, it’s good; the poor have a right to live in the city. [But even] if they get $70,000, they can’t afford to live in the town,” Phearum said.
The identity of the Japanese company in question remained a mystery yesterday. The Japanese Embassy declined to comment on the matter except to say it was not involved in the project. Japanese development agency JICA responded similarly.
City Hall spokesman Mean Chanyada said the municipality was yet to receive information on the project from the Land Management Ministry, but would act as soon as it received proper documentation.
Ee Sarom, executive director of housing NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, said the government would be wise to conduct such a consultation.
“I heard from the community people that they are not happy with this solution, they took example from previous cases like Borei Keila, so they do not trust the government,” Sarom said. “Find out what the community wants first.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KHOUTH SOPHAK CHAKRYA