Apartment blocks rise from the Borei Keila community in Phnom Penh, where hundreds of families were violently evicted five years ago. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Dozens of families who were evicted from Phnom Penh’s Borei Keila community five years ago and sent to live on a plot of land in Kandal province said they will attempt to occupy an apartment building behind the development that stands where they once lived in an effort to secure greater compensation.
“I know what we are doing is wrong, but we are forced to do it,” 44-year-old Khieu Lai said of the plan to mark the anniversary of their eviction with a demonstration and then move into the building that some of their former neighbors settled into after their eviction.
Ms. Lai said that about 70 families who had been moved to a barren strip of land in Phnom Bat commune, about 40 km outside of the capital, were simply not able to survive without the utilities and government services initially promised to them.
“This is our last choice,” she said. “We have no clean water, electricity, school or markets…. They promised to build us new houses, but it’s now been almost five years with empty promises.”
On January 3, 2012, military police and police descended upon Borei Keila, violently clashing with about 200 villagers who attempted to protect their homes against a development project by Phanimex, a firm owned by powerful businesswoman Suy Sophan.
When Ms. Sophan was granted the 2.6 hectare plot, she pledged to build 10 apartment buildings for the 1,776 families being uprooted. Only eight were constructed before Phanimex claimed bankruptcy, leaving over 300 families to find homes elsewhere.
Ms. Lai was among about 140 villagers resettled in Phnom Bat, where small shacks were installed and promises of development were made and then apparently forgotten. She said 10 of the 70 families from the commune had already returned to Phnom Penh as of yesterday, while more would arrive in time for the anniversary demonstration set for 8:30 a.m. today.
Sor Sorn, a former Borei Keila resident who organized the event, said she expected about 100 Borei Keila evictees to attend, along with three monks and representatives of other eviction-hit communities in the capital.
“We are not scared of arrest because we were hurt by losing our land and houses,” said Phork Sophin, another evictee awaiting compensation.
“If we remain afraid, how can we get our houses back?” she asked. “I have lived here since 1997 and I have enough documents to prove it. I will not go anywhere. I want compensation in the form of a house in this development.”
According to Ms. Lai, those returning to the eviction area intended to request $10,000 in compensation from the government, she said.
However, City Hall spokesman Mean Chanyada said neither the anniversary protest nor the Phnom Bat group’s move into the apartment building would be allowed.
“If they hold an eviction ceremony, we will absolutely not allow them to. We have not received their request to do that,” he said.
“If they claim there was no development and they want to return to Borei Keila with the purpose of putting pressure on City Hall, it is not right,” he said of the Phnom Bat community. “They are acting against the law.”
The government was in the process of developing the rural plot “like any other poor community,” he added, and the group would not be allowed to return to their old property. He declined to say how the government, which has previously claimed that the Borei Keila disputes have all been settled, would prevent the protest or occupation.