The Pearl of Asia. Paris of the East. The monikers are today synonymous with Phnom Penh under the French and the Golden Era under Prince Norodom Sihanouk until the 1970s.
The small but bustling city boasted grand boulevards, a thriving cultural scene and an emerging skyline dotted with Vann Molyvann’s “New Khmer” architectural creations. It was reportedly even the object of former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s envy after a visit in April 1967.
Yet the civil war that followed Sihanouk’s ouster in 1970 and the emptying of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge in 1975 left the city – and its water, sewage and electric systems – in utter disrepair by the time Pol Pot’s plans for a utopian agrarian society were ended by a Vietnamese invasion in 1979.
After the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement restored some stability, and freedom of the press, to the country, reporter Leo Dobbs used the first issue of The Phnom Penh Post 25 years ago to write about the debate between deputy mayor Kry Beng Hong and the UNDP’s deputy mission chief Rajeev Pillay over whether the city needed a master plan to guide its redevelopment.
Beng Hong said the lack of a plan would lead to a “chaotic situation” while Pillay argued for a more dynamic approach to allow organic development rather than anything set in “concrete”.
To this day, the need for a plan for the city has continued to remain a topic of debate, and it took the government until the end of 2015 to release anything resembling a master plan. Even then, it was only a 35-page synopsis of an apparently 1,000-page document looking towards 2035.
The full document – titled ‘Phnom Penh Land Use for 2035’ – has yet to be released, and City Hall instead now simply displays large model showcases of planned and ongoing projects.
The synopsis of the 2035 plan itself takes a sharp departure from a separate French-funded white paper that looked toward 2020 by emphasising improved land titling in Phnom Penh, better demarcations of private and public land, and even zoning.
Those ideas failed to show up at all in the 35-page synopsis, which mostly detailed plans about active or already completed developments and only left more questions about what thought the government has given to the capital’s development over the coming years and decades.
It also raised a more sinister side to Phnom Penh’s development.
Among its listed projects were notorious developments that have led to thousands of low-income families being booted to the outskirts to help “beautify” the capital, including the grants of hectares of prime central real estate to Phanimex – owned by business tycoon Suy Sophan – in Borei Keila, and of the former Boeung Kak lake to CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin-owned Shukaku Inc.
Among the many in the city, both projects have been panned by land rights activists as two of the worst examples of now-common forced evictions and displacements of the city’s poor.
At Boeung Kak, more than 4,000 families were violently evicted from their decade-old homes to make way for an ambitious satellite city that has yet to eventuate 10 years after the lease to the land was signed in February 2007. To this day, about two dozen families remain at loggerheads with City Hall, awaiting financial compensation or plots of land at a nearby relocation site.
Meanwhile, at Borei Keila, Phanimex was supposed to build 10 apartment buildings to relocate 154 families on the site. Eight buildings were completed but the other two were never started, leaving around 15 families living in squalor in one of the crumbling older structures on the site.
Yet, such blights on the city’s land-rights record have run in parallel to the rapid – if often ad-hoc – development of the city’s basic amenities like roads, health services, schools and utilities.
Cambodia’s construction sector has over the past few years also turned into a major driver of the country’s economy, bringing in nearly $8.5 billion last year – with the capital taking the lion’s share. Million-dollar condos are now available in Phnom Penh, while the emerging middle class flock to the many new gated communities, known as borei, as a step up the social ladder.
Soeung Saran, advocacy programme manager at the housing rights group Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, said the city was now changing visibly year-by-year with the development of high-rises, better roads and, now, even overpasses and underpasses. Its water and electricity networks have also been extended to the outer reaches, though parts remain unconnected.
Such progress has, for better or worse, come with the “dark side of development”, where the poor have either been left behind or pushed aside to make way for the investments.
“The authorities seem not to care about the livelihood of the poor, and development and misfortunes of the urban poor have gone hand-in-hand,” Saran said.
The silver lining, Saran said, was the growing awareness among the city’s residents of their civic rights, which he said would over the next decade push the authorities to take a more conciliatory approach to pushing development projects to avoid years-long disputes.
“The White Building is one good example of how it can be done without problems,” he said.
The iconic but crumbling White Building, whose construction was a symbol of Phnom Penh’s fast development in Sihanouk’s era, had been home to around 500 families but most last month agreed to compensation packages to vacate and make way for a 21-storey apartment complex.
Much like its construction, the demolition of the now dilapidated structure will mark a major point in Phnom Penh’s rapid development – this time since the peace of the early 1990s – as the capital continues in its race to become a major regional metropolis, with or without a plan.