A ceremony arranged by Phnom Penh officials to mark their final offers of compensation for hundreds of people who have spent years protesting their eviction from the Borei Keila neighborhood descended into chaos on Tuesday as activists stormed the meeting, leading to scuffles with police.
The 154 families are the last to be offered compensation among a larger group of residents who were evicted by the Phanimex company after it was awarded development rights in 2003. While the powerful conglomerate won the contract on the condition it build 10 apartment blocks to house the residents, it ultimately constructed only eight blocks, leaving hundreds of families to squat in filthy, slum-like conditions at the site.
In September, City Hall announced that compensation would be offered to 154 out of the 183 families still living on the site, with 35 families being awarded what amounted to a first prize: an apartment on the land that was once theirs. Eighty-five others would be given a choice between $5,000 or a small plot at the Andong village relocation site in Kandal province, around 45 km from the city center, while the final 34 were offered $3,000. The government decided not to recognize the claims of the other 29 families.
Speaking under a marquee that was erected on rubble where the 1,776-strong community once lived, Mean Chanyada, City Hall’s chief of administration, said the final compensation offers signaled the end of the long-running dispute.
“Borei Keila is a complicated case, and it has been long disputed…. This meeting today marks the final solution of the problem,” Mr. Chanyada announced to around 70 residents, most of whom were women and children looking on with disinterest.
Mr. Chanyada said all but one of the 35 families offered apartments accepted the deal, while only 40 of the 85 residents agreed to either $5,000 or a plot in Andong, and just four chose to move to the site. Of the 34 residents offered $3,000, only 16 accepted, he said.
After Mr. Chanyada concluded his speech and handed the microphone to an official who began reciting the names of those who had been offered compensation, a group of around eight women marched toward the marquee, holding banners and waving documentation in the air as they shouted.
“I won’t leave Borei Keila—the company destroyed my house to take the land, and now they’ve built a villa on it,” shouted Phork Sophan, 43.
As a crowd of about 20 reporters surrounded the group of activists, Ms. Sophan lamented her treatment at the hands of authorities. After a few minutes, Keo Sakal, chief of Prampi Makara district’s Veal Vong commune, approached Ms. Sophan and briefly embraced her in what seemed to be an attempt to calm her, before abruptly handing her to district police officials, who began dragging her through the crowd toward the road.
Amid the commotion, a City Hall official conferred with the police, at which point she was returned to the back of the marquee with her fellow activists and the event was swiftly shut down.
Back at her brother’s apartment, located in one of the eight apartment blocks, a tearful Ms. Sophan said she decided to gate-crash the event after her family was left off the final compensation list.
“The treatment was completely unfair. [Ms. Sakal] told them to take me to the district office, but I’m not scared because I haven’t done anything wrong,” Ms. Sophan said.
“I’ve lived here since 1996 and have the documents to prove this,” she added.
Speaking in the fly-infested alleyway that weaves through the area where hundreds of residents still live, Im Sreymom, 35, said she had accepted defeat in her battle against City Hall and Phanimex.
“I agreed to take $5,000. I don’t want to live in Andong because it’s too small for my children. I’m not happy with the deal but I have no choice. I can’t live here any longer. I feel too much hurt here after everything,” Ms. Sreymom said, adding that she planned to use the money to relocate to Koh Kong province.
“I’ve been involved with the protests for so long. I want to continue fighting but I have no choice. I can’t do this anymore. I’ve got kids and I can’t support them properly if I carry on protesting,” she said.
Contacted after the event was shut down, Ms. Sakal denied handing Ms. Sophan over to police and said the brief fracas was simply a misunderstanding.
“I went to help her because I wanted the protesters to talk with authorities. I did not hand her over to the police,” Ms. Sakal said.
“The protest happened because many journalists and cameramen were blocking them and that’s why they could not hear what the representative announced,” she said.
Despite City Hall’s efforts to draw a line under the Borei Keila dispute, Ms. Sophan vowed to keep protesting.
“I will continue to protest. I will never stop,” she said.