A day before Land Management Minister Chea Sophara was scheduled to meet residents of Phnom Penh’s iconic White Building, the locale’s village chiefs promised to find a quick solution to the residents’ impending eviction – if the ruling Cambodian People’s Party fared well in the upcoming commune elections, that is.
At a meeting with residents of the building yesterday, chiefs Hun Sarath and Ngem Sovan, who represent the building’s two villages, said the process of finding a solution for residents of the White Building – which is slated for demolition – was complicated, but noted that re-election of CPP representatives in the June ballot would help quicken that process.
In an interview, Sovan confirmed asking the villagers to support the ruling party, and maintained that there was nothing unusual about it.
“Related to telling [the villagers] to vote for the CPP in order to find a solution for the building, I think it is not wrong and it is normal thing,” Sovan said, refusing to comment further.
However, advocates yesterday begged to differ, saying the remarks inappropriately politicised what should be a non-partisan bureaucratic process.
The White Building is slated for a three-year redevelopment by Japanese firm Arakawa Co Ltd costing an estimated $70 million, with current residents given two options: live elsewhere during the redevelopment and return to new apartments, or sell out and leave their homes.
Initial plans for the structure include 21 storeys, five of which will be used to house existing White Building residents. Three will be used for parking, one for commercial purposes and the rest will be set aside for Arakawa to sell privately.
Over the last few months, ministry officials have swarmed the building on multiple occasions, measuring and inspecting the structure, with Sophara expected to ask residents to make a final pick as to which of the two solutions they prefer today.
San Chey, head of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability Cambodia, said it was clearly evident that the power remained with the ministry – regardless of what the village chiefs may have promised – and that the duo should refrain from playing a “political game”.
Finding a solution based on a political calculation “should not be more [important] than the responsibility they have to the citizens”, he said.
“It should be without political obligations and without conditions on the elections.”
Chey was also surprised the village chiefs were proactively involving themselves in the process, given that normally village chiefs were prone to throw their hands up and point to the Land Ministry when citizens asked for intervention in contentious land disputes.
Soeung Saran, advocacy program manager for housing rights NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, said the chief’s request almost had the ring of a threat, and that the long-standing issue needed to be resolved in a bipartisan manner.
Meanwhile, Morn Phalla, in charge of Phnom Penh communes for the CNRP, said any party elected to the commune and village would be able to work with the ministry to expedite the redevelopment of the White Building.
“It is the obligation of [local] authorities who win to complete their obligation to the people and find solutions to any problem of the people,” he said.
Yesterday’s announcement appeared to resonate with some residents. Yan Phearum and Som Sitha both said that after hearing the chiefs’ remarks, they wondered if it would potentially be easier to find a solution with a CPP representative.
Sitha said that he worried that a change in village or commune chief could change the processes involved in getting compensation.
But 62-year-old Kol Saran said that the officials’ remarks would have no bearing on how she voted in June, adding that she only wanted the government to ensure fair compensation for her plot.
“To vote or not vote for the CPP, the village chiefs should not have said that,” she said, wagging her finger. “We have made our decision and want a quick solution regardless.”