300 stalls at Old Market scorched

26 Nov
Firefighters and members of the public use water hoses to try and contain a blaze at Phsar Chas in Phnom Penh

Firefighters and members of the public use water hoses to try and contain a blaze at Phsar Chas in Phnom Penh. Pha Lina

A fire ripped through Phnom Penh’s Phsar Chas, otherwise known as Old Market, yesterday morning, destroying about 300 of its 914 stalls and causing an estimated $1.5 million in damages, authorities said, although no one was injured or killed.

The blaze began at 7am and gutted the market’s eastern core along Street 13, destroying or damaging up to 60 per cent of its stalls.

Vendors rushed to evacuate as many of their goods as possible, and then could only watch as the firefighters battled the flames for two hours.

“We managed to stop the fire at around 9:18am,” said Khoung Sreng, Phnom Penh deputy governor.

“It was difficult to go in [and extinguish] the fire because most of the stalls in Phsar Chas are made of zinc and are low [-lying].”

Speaking amid burnt bananas and heaps of twisted metal, fruit seller Choun Seng Ngim, 23, said he had lost about $2,000.

“When I came [in the morning] to open the stall, another vendor shouted that there was a fire,” Seng Ngim explained.

“We hurried to bring our goods out, but my two refrigerators, all the fruit, and my stall were completely destroyed.”

Some vendors expressed dismay at the response of the authorities. Crouching to the ground to find gems and pearls in the ashes, jewellery seller Ton Channa, 35, said it took too long – 15 minutes – for the first firetruck to arrive, despite the market’s central location.

Forty-eight-year-old Seng Hun, who came to help her family evacuate cookery from their stall, said improved safety standards could have averted the disaster.

“All the store owners should have a fire extinguisher; only a few did,” she said.

“My sister [the owner] is so devastated, she cannot control her feelings.”

Deputy Governor Sreng appealed to vendors to have fire safety tools like fire extinguishers to prevent fires before firetrucks arrive.

People flee with their belongings at Phsar Chas yesterday morning as a raging fire tore through the Phnom Penh market

People flee with their belongings at Phsar Chas yesterday morning as a raging fire tore through the Phnom Penh market. Heng Chivoan

“Windy season is coming now, so please, all people, houses, businesses, and vendors must be careful together.”

Paul Hurford, a former firefighter and head of Firesafe Cambodia, said “the extinguishers are certainly a good start, but they would have to go a lot further [than that]”.

Hurford said it was unclear how upcoming safety regulations in the building sector would apply to the Kingdom’s many markets, which he said are especially vulnerable to fires due to their easily combustible materials and mazelike passageways.

“When a fire starts [in such environments], you’re going to have an extremely hard time to put it out.”

Rumours also spread quickly on Facebook and elsewhere that the blaze was started deliberately to make way for a new development that would take advantage of the market’s prime location.

Phnom Penh municipality reacted by announcing the fire was started by stall number 01 owner Sean Ly, 48, whose plastic bags were set alight by an electrical fault.

“We are taking the opportunity to appeal to all journalists and Facebook users to please not exploit the vendors’ sadness for their own benefit or demonise the authorities,” read a statement.

Many of the vendors said they would file demands to the authorities for compensation, as the market is publicly owned.

Daun Penh District Governor Kouch Chamroeun said that a working group would be created to evaluate the full extent of the damage, estimating the total costs to be around $1.5 million.

Prominent historian Milton Osborne said in an email yesterday that he did not know the exact date of the market’s establishment, but he said it had been a fixture of the area for decades, and “its existence was very much linked to the Chinese Quarter of the city”.

“When I came to Phnom Penh in 1959 and lived in the Chinese Quarter, in Kralahom Kong Street, the Psar Chaa market gave the impression of having been there for many decades,” he added, using an alternate spelling.

“So it’s a loss, another break with the past that seems unlikely to be replaced.”

OCIC pitch ‘disappoints’ Chroy Changvar disputants

26 Nov

Residents on Phnom Penh’s Chroy Changvar peninsula embroiled in a land dispute with tycoon Pung Khieu Se’s Overseas Cambodia Investment Corporation were to submit a petition to City Hall today following a new compensation offer from the authorities last week.

Nan Ony of the Housing Rights Task Force said that the land owners had been “deeply disappointed” by the new compensation offer.

Villagers could either sell their land for the price they paid for it, or sell 90 per cent for the same price, with 50 per cent of the land going to the company, 40 to the government and the remaining 10 to the villager, he said.

Reth Dyna, a community representative, said villagers would petition the government today to give them land titles.

They did not want to move into homes built by OCIC, he said, conceding that eight families had already taken up the company’s offer.

The 387-hectare satellite city project will cost $1.6 billion, and villagers there claim to have lived on the land since before 1993.

Klaing Huot, Chroy Changvar district governor, said that City Hall had “promised to cut out their old villages from the project”, but asked them “to cooperate with the government to sell their land”.

Family in hiding names price

26 Nov

By Chhay Channyda, The Phnom Penh Post, November 26, 2014

Ly Srea Kheng holds a bag containing snakes he claims were thrown into his home in Phnom Penh

Ly Srea Kheng holds a bag containing snakes he claims were thrown into his home in Phnom Penh last year by people working for Khun Sear Import Export Company. Pha Lina

A teenager whose father and sister were arrested last week over a land dispute with a politically connected company said yesterday that his family will vacate their home for $250,000.

Ly Bun Heang’s family has claimed it has had snakes thrown in their house and their property burned, among other abuses, in an attempt to have them leave their home of 30 years in the capital’s Tuol Kork district. The government signed over the land in Boeung Kak I commune to the Khun Sear Import Export Company in 2010.

Bun Heang, 18, said yesterday that his family has previously refused to talk money with the company but would now request $250,000 as compensation to leave.

“I have contacted NGOs to help negotiate. I say $250,000,” he said, adding that the price was less than market value. “If the company agrees with this price, we would like all cases to be withdrawn.”

It would then be expected that his father, Ly Srea Kheng and sister Ly Seav Minh, who were arrested November 18, would be freed from pre-trial detention at Prey Sar prison, he said. The pair has been charged over alleged violence against Khun Sear representatives. The family claims that company “gangsters” have repeatedly intimidated them to leave.

Khun Sear representatives, who could not be reached yesterday, are yet to respond to the family’s offer.

Srea Kheng was arrested at the family home in the capital’s Tuol Kork district last Tuesday morning. His daughter, Seav Minh, was arrested later that day when trying to see him at Phnom Penh Municipal Court. Bun Heang, fearing he was next, ran out of the court and was chased by police.

After his escape, Bun Heang and his mother, Mok Seav Huong, went into hiding. Their efforts to return home last Wednesday were abandoned when they realised police were stationed outside their house, Seav Huong said.

“I still want to go back to my home, but I am afraid of being detained,” said the 50-year-old, who is battling a number of health problems. “They are rich and powerful and can do anything. I am only with my son and I am living with disease. I can’t resist or defend my land.”

Choung Choungy, the family’s lawyer, said he will lodge a request with Phnom Penh Municipal Court seeking bail for the father and daughter.

No compensation for vendors at Old Market

26 Nov

By Sen David, The Phnom Penh Post, November 26,  2014

Heavy machinery helps move the charred remnants of stalls at Phsar Chas yesterday in Phnom Penh

Heavy machinery helps move the charred remnants of stalls at Phsar Chas yesterday in Phnom Penh. Pha Lina

The committee that runs Old Market in Phnom Penh told the owners of stalls that were gutted by a fire on Monday that they would receive no compensation and would have to rebuild their businesses themselves.

A committee representative said the fire was an accident – hence no compensation – and also said that it would be faster for the business owners to do the job if they did it themselves.

Roughly 300 of the 914 stalls at the market, known as Phsar Chas in Khmer, were ruined in the morning blaze, which caused an estimated $1.5 million in damage.

Hours after the fire was brought under control, the municipality released a statement attributing the cause to an electrical fault that occurred near a vendor’s plastic bags, setting them alight.

Yun Chandara, director of the committee that oversees the market, told vendors that the city – which owns the property – has told stall owners to rebuild on their own; otherwise the authorities may take too much time.

“We please suggest all the vendors who have stall fire [damage] rebuild the stall by themselves,” he said yesterday after a meeting with vendors. “The fire, no one wants this to have happened.”

Stall owners were not pleased about the lack of compensation, but they were reassured that they would not have to leave the market.

“At least, we’re happy that we can build a new stall at our old place. The market has no plan to force us to move for a new development,” said Kim Ly, a stall owner.

But authorities aren’t leaving it all to the businesses.

Kouch Chamrouen, Daun Penh district governor, said a clean-up team was out in force yesterday.

“We need to clean the ash first for paving the way to evaluate the effects [of the fire] … and some vendors [whose] stalls did not burn can sell as usual,” he said.

While the recovery begins, at least one other similar venue is meeting with stall owners to talk about fire safety.

At Kandal Market, a few blocks from Phsar Chas, Chab Dyna, the director the market committee, said sellers are being encouraged to have fire extinguishers.

“The fire at the Phsar Chas market is an experience for all markets in the city, so we would like all the vendors, please be careful”, he said.

New charges await Loun Sovath

26 Nov

With New Neighbors, Villagers Want Land Concession

26 Nov

By BEN SOKHEAN , The Cambodia Daily, November 26, 2014

About 300 villagers protested in front of the Siem Reap provincial hall on Tuesday to demand the government provide them with a social land concession as it did last month for a group of 85 families that moved into their district in 2006.

The protesting villagers were representing a group of 562 families who say they have been living in Banteay Srei district’s Tbeng commune for more than two decades.

“We have lived in that area since 1992, but we do not have enough farmland for rice fields,” said Kun Eng, 44, a representative of the villagers.

“But for 85 families who just came from another province in 2006, the authorities gave farmland to them.”

Deputy provincial governor Sin Ron said he received a petition from the group Tuesday.

“We just received the residents’ petition today, so we could not respond to their request now,” said Mr. Ron, who confirmed the 85 families that moved into the district in 2006 received a 96.4-hectare concession last month.

“We need to check on the case first.”

Seasoned Tycoon Reprimands New Land Concession Holders

26 Nov

BY AUN PHEAP, The Cambodia Daily, November 26, 2014

Mong Reththy, one of Cambodia’s most prominent tycoons, complained Tuesday that recent recipients of expansive land concessions from the government have less of a social conscience than entrepreneurs granted land in the 1990s.

Speaking on the sidelines of a conference hosted by USAID and the NGO Forum titled “Working Together to Promote Effective Reform on Land and Natural Resources Governance in Cambodia,” Mr. Reththy told reporters that disputes between concession holders and displaced villagers were nothing new.

Agriculture and commodities tycoon Mong Reththy speaks during a conference about land reform in Phnom Penh on Tuesday. (Yu Phourn/NGO Forum)

“I have more than 20 years experience investing in economic land concessions [ELCs],” he said, going on to recount his past efforts to deal with disputes that arose.

“People complained that they did not have land for building houses, so I prepared land for them to build houses on…. Then the people didn’t have land for rice cultivation, so I cultivated it [for them], but then they could not harvest it because they were lazy.”

In contrast to his own generosity, Mr. Reththy said, recipients of concessions in recent years, when pressured to resolve disputes with displaced or threatened villagers, forget that the land comes with a responsibility to use it for the benefit of the country as a whole.

“There are many problems that we are required to sit down and talk about because some concessionaires do not understand their obligations,” he said.

“People trying to solve the problems should not think about their individual benefit,” he said. “They should think about the interests of the people and the nation…and the problems will be solved.”

Mr. Reththy, an agriculture and commodities magnate, was a monk at the Phnom Penh pagoda where Prime Minister Hun Sen served in his youth as a pagoda boy. He is a former adviser to the prime minister and remains close to him.

U.S. Embassy cables released by the anti-secrecy group Wikileaks in 2011 described Mr. Reththy as “one of the most influential businessmen in Cambodia” and “Hun Sen’s Money Man.”

Speaking at Tuesday’s conference, Suon Bunsak, executive secretary of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, said that some 4 million hectares of Cambodia’s land have been issued to private companies in the form of ELCs and mining concessions. The country’s total area is about 18 million hectares.

“We appeal to the government to solve the problems of the affected and evicted people,” he said.

Mr. Hun Sen put a moratorium on the issuance of new ELCs in 2012, but a number of concessions have nevertheless been awarded to businesspeople since then, with the government claiming they submitted applications prior to the ban.

Contacted after Tuesday’s conference, Environment Ministry spokesman Sao Sopheap denied recent media reports that the government is considering granting new ELCs.

“The government continues to implement its policy not to provide new ELCs, so any individuals who raise this issue must accept responsibility for the publication,” Mr. Sopheap said.

“The government has no policy to provide new ELCs.”

 

Commission Calls for Review of Land Concessions in Koh Kong

26 Nov

By KHUON NARIM AND HUL REAKSMEY , The Cambodia Daily,  November 26, 2014

Three parliamentarians from the National Assembly’s human rights commission, led by CNRP lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang, returned Tuesday from a two-day visit to four communities in Koh Kong province locked in land disputes with companies holding private land concessions.

Mr. Chhay Eang, who was accompanied by CPP lawmakers Loy Sophat and Lork Kheng, said the purpose of the visit was to talk to families affected by the disputes in Sre Ambel, Botum Sakor and Kiri Sakor districts.

Following the trip, the lawmakers said they would call on the government to review the concessions awarded to the companies involved: Heng Huy Agricultural Group, Union Development Group and two companies linked to CPP Senator Ly Yong Phat: Koh Kong SEZ and Koh Kong Sugar.

“We have seen that these companies did not follow the government’s policy and have been involved in forced evictions and burning down villagers houses and so we will ask the government to review [their concessions],” Mr. Chhay Eang said.

He added that the commission would summon provincial governor Bun Leut and other involved authorities for questioning at the National Assembly.

Mr. Sophat of the CPP also said there was clear evidence that some of the companies in Koh Kong “have not respected government policy.”

“We have seen the situation here with our own eyes and heard the villagers’ concerns and have more understanding about the issues here,” Mr. Sophat said. “[W]e will continue to investigate each case.”

In Kongchet, provincial coordinator for rights group Licadho, said the delegation met with 521 families across the three districts. But he said he was skeptical that the commission’s report would have any impact on the villagers’ situation.

“The government has always acted on its own prerogative to sign away land concessions without hearing any complaints,” he said.

“So I don’t have much hope that this visit will solve the dispute, as the government is the decision maker who signed the contracts.”

After Fire, Official Tells Vendors To Rebuild Stalls on Their Own

26 Nov

By SEK ODOM AND SIMON HENDERSON, The Cambodia Daily,  November 26, 2014

With most of the rubble cleared from Phnom Penh’s Phsar Chas, a local official on Tuesday told the vendors whose shops and merchandise were destroyed by a fire that raged for more than two hours at the historic market Monday morning to begin the process of rebuilding themselves.

Though there were no casualties, more than 200 stalls were in­cinerated and many more damaged in the blaze, which started at about 7:30 a.m. and was caused by an electrical fault.

An excavator clears rubble from Phnom Penh's Phsar Chas on Tuesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

An excavator clears rubble from Phnom Penh’s Phsar Chas on Tuesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

On Tuesday, a charred courtyard was exposed after the city’s sole waste-management company, Cintri, brought in an excavator, trash trucks and more than 30 workers to help clear away debris.

Daun Penh district governor Kouch Chamroeun said the most recent count put the number of stalls destroyed at 205. Their owners spent most of Monday sifting through the ash for the remains of their stock, but on Tuesday, there was little for them to do but watch the cleanup effort.

But they have plenty of work ahead, Mr. Chamroeun said, if they hope to get their businesses up and running again.

“Please…rebuild your stalls your­self, because you will have to wait a long time for the state to help you,” he told the vendors at a press conference at the market, noting that if they begin rebuilding themselves, they could be ready for custom­ers within a month.

“The damage will amount to more than $1.5 million, but we could not have predicted that this fire would happen,” he said. “And there is no law that states the government must compensate you, so how can we compensate you?”

San Sok Luch, a 29-year-old vendor who sold knockoff brandname perfumes, said he lost nearly $10,000 worth of stock in thefire, and had no expectations that City Hall would offer him assistance anytime soon.

“They have said it would take more than four months for them to help us, but I don’t have four months to wait, so I need to rebuild by myself,” he said.

Court Cites ‘Misunderstanding’ in Linking Monk to Dissiden

26 Nov

BY KHY SOVUTHY , The Cambodia Daily, November 26, 2014

As a beaming Luon Sovath walked into the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for his sedition trial Tuesday, dozens of flag-waving supporters lining the sidewalk called for the charges against the activist monk to be dropped, while a throng of reporters pressed in on him.

In September, Luon Sovath was summoned to appear in court, along with U.S.-based dissident Sourn Serey Ratha, to face charges of incitement to commit a felony, plotting to commit an attack and disrupting last year’s national elections.

Activist monk Luon Sovath gestures to supporters as he enters the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday morning. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Activist monk Luon Sovath gestures to supporters as he enters the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday morning. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

 

The charges stemmed from Mr. Serey Ratha organizing activists in Cambodia to hand out T-shirts urging people not to cast ballots and distribute flowers to soldiers along with stickers urging them to “turn your guns against the despot.”

In a statement released in the lead-up to the trial, 16 NGOs roundly criticized the court for linking Luon Sovath to Mr. Serey Ratha’s case.

But at about 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, an hour and a half after proceedings were scheduled to commence, Presiding Judge Top Chhun Heng opened the trial by saying that Luon Sovath’s charges could be separated from Mr. Serey Ratha’s case.

A few minutes later, deputy prosecutor Meas Chanpiseth announced that the summons issued for the monk was the result of a “misunderstanding” among court officials, and that charges against Luon Sovath had nothing to do with those against Mr. Serey Ratha.

“The hearing today does not involve Luon Sovath,” Judge Chhun Heng said.

In 2012, the municipal court charged Luon Sovath with incitement to commit a felony for his involvement in protests in Phnom Penh.

Luon Sovath says he met Mr. Serey Ratha only once, in the U.S. in 2011, and denies any role in his schemes. Speaking to reporters outside the court after the hearing Tuesday, the monk vowed to continue fighting to promote human rights.

“I will continue to help our society and the nation,” he said, before marching to Samakki Raingsey pagoda in Meanchey district with a contingent of supporters and fellow monks in tow.

Three other men involved in Tuesday’s trial—Im Phearun, 26; Serey Bunlong, 28; and Seng Sok Meng, 30—entered the court with far less fanfare.

Handcuffed and wearing prison-issued jumpsuits, the trio, charged with breaking the election law and joining an anti-government group for passing out Mr. Serey Ratha’s T-shirts in July last year, was escorted by guards into the courtroom, which had almost emptied following Luon Sovath’s exit.

During questioning, all three men denied being members of Mr. Serey Ratha’s Khmer People Power Movement, and said their only contact with the dissident had been via Facebook.

Mr. Serey Ratha, who lives in self-imposed exile in the U.S., admits to organizing both activities from abroad, but argues that neither act constituted a crime.

Their trial is scheduled to continue on December 9.

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