Thirteen long years after the Phanimex Development company signed a deal to develop a heavily populated slice of land in central Phnom Penh, the remaining members of a community displaced by the project were offered compensation on Friday, but appear set to reject the offers and stand their ground.
In what played out like a crass human lottery, members of 154 families gathered at the Prampi Makara district office on Friday morning as government security guards stuck sheets of paper to a wall outlining compensation packages.
What amounted to first prize, awarded to 35 families, was an apartment on the land that was once theirs. Eighty-five families were offered $5,000 in cash and a plot of land about 45 km from the city center, while 34 deemed to have the weakest claims to compensation were given $3,000.
“I will not take the $3,000. What can I do with $3,000? Can I buy a house?” said Phork Sophing, a 45- year-old single mother who sleeps with her three children on the floor of her sister’s home.
“The rich and powerful, together with the authorities, are deceitful. They collude together and they only think about themselves. Where is the house that we were promised?”
After Phanimex took over the prime land known as Borei Keila, its chairwoman, Suy Sophan, signed an agreement with City Hall to build 10 apartment blocks for 1,776 families living there. But after building only eight, construction stopped, leaving many families homeless.
In stages, the neglected families were expelled from the area; a brutal 2012 eviction saw armed soldiers drag people from their homes as heavy machinery smashed them to rubble.
But many have stuck around. While some have taken up residence in a derelict apartment block on the land, others have erected a shanty town of tents and tarpaulins at the foot of the new buildings.
“Inside the halls of the abandoned building, groups take drugs and there is fighting every day,” said Chum Ngan, 44, who was among those offered land and $5,000 on Friday.
“Living there is not an ideal situation, but my husband and I will stay in Borei Keila forever. We have been there since 1993. Will Phanimex give us a house, or did they just lie?”
As residents took turns scanning the wall of the district office yesterday, almost all of them came away dejected, despite already knowing the three possible outcomes.
One elderly lady, however, emerged from the pack with a grin that nearly spanned her face. “So happy, so happy,” she said, before realizing that she was in the minority and quickly attempting to mask her emotion.
“I don’t want to talk,” she told reporters, declining to be named as she hurried toward the exit.
“They try to split the group, but the group must show solidarity,” said Am Sam Ath, a technical supervisor for rights group Licadho who observed the proceedings on Friday.
“Even those who got the house, they must stay together and show that they do not accept, that they are strong.”
Chhay Kimhorn has been on the frontlines of the battle for Borei Keila for years, officially representing 76 of the families offered compensation on Friday. She was among the lucky ones whose family was granted a space in one of the eight apartment blocks that Phanimex did build.
Each compensation package must be accepted or rejected within 30 days, and Ms. Kimhorn said that whether or not she moved into the building would be a group decision.
“[Phnom Penh governor] Pa Socheatvong told me, ‘Kimhorn, you will get a house, so just stop protesting,’” she said. “But this affects all of us, not just me. We started this together. We are one group.”
And lingering distrust from broken Phanimex promises has made Mr. Kimhorn skeptical that the solutions offered on Friday were genuine.
“Those eight buildings, they are full of people already. Where are they going to put us?” she said. “Until they build another building—which would be enough for all 154 families to live happily—I just can’t trust them.”
Ms. Sophan, the Phanimex chairwoman, could not be reached for comment.
Municipal spokesman Long Dimanche said the latest promises would be honored.
“Don’t worry, we have already organized a place for the 35 families who were awarded a home,” he said, declining to elaborate. “Please trust us.”
As for those who plan on holding out and staging more demonstrations in the hope that they will one day receive what they believe they are entitled to, the message from the City Hall was clear.
“There is no need for more talking about a resolution,” Mr. Dimanche said. “City Hall has had enough of them and their negotiations.”