Nokor Thom commune, Siem Reap province – Thoeun Chantrea’s cries of anguish pierced the calm forests of Angkor Archaeological Park on Thursday morning as authorities began to tear down a house she had begun building two months ago.
Tourists in tuk-tuks passed along the road in front of her house, some peering at the gathering of more than 30 police, military police and Apsara Authority officials surrounding Ms. Chantrea and what was left of her home. But any drivers who slowed down were quickly urged to move along.
Earlier in the day, more than 100 military police and police officers had gathered at the police station only a few hundred meters from the country’s most visited tourist site.
At one intersection, one could look left and see the bridge leading to Angkor Wat, or look right and see the mass of officers—a show of force intended to prevent violence during a series of evictions that began on Thursday inside the Unesco World Heritage Site.
The reasons for the evictions offered by Apsara Authority, the government body responsible for managing the park, are clear: Villagers need approval to build new structures in the park, and the Authority never granted permission for the more than 500 structures erected in the weeks leading up to the June 4 commune elections.
But villagers on Thursday told a different story, casting themselves as pawns in a cruel political game. Ms. Chantrea showed reporters application documents for new construction, dated two weeks before last month’s elections and signed by both Nokor Thom’s former village and commune chiefs. She said the pair had assured her that document would be enough to protect her new home, built with wooden poles and a tin roof.
“They told me, ‘If Apsara comes to remove your house, you can show your letter to Apsara, and then they will not remove it,’” Ms. Chantrea said. All they asked in return was to “not forget to thank them,” which she took as a reminder to vote for the ruling party in the commune elections.
But if there was an attempt by the ruling party to buy the loyalty of the villagers in Nokor Thom commune, it failed. The CNRP won the commune by nearly 400 votes out of almost 5,000 cast.
When Ms. Chantrea held up her letter on Thursday in an attempt to protect her home, officials told her it was invalid.
“My house was destroyed by authorities, and now I’ve lost everything,” she said.
Sin Vuthy, a homeowner from Rohal village whose concrete house was also removed on Thursday, reported receiving the same letter from officials. He previously said he would protest his home’s removal, but changed his mind when officials showed up in force.
“I did not dare to protest, because we saw military police and police,” he said. “Not only me, but everyone is grieving for the loss of their homes.”
The former CPP commune chief, Nga Chong, acknowledged signing letters approving new construction for villagers, but said he told them they still needed to submit the documents to Apsara Authority for additional approval.
“You can look at the form, I did not say I agreed for those people to build a house,” Mr. Chong said on Thursday. “I just asked them to ask Apsara.”
The form seen by reporters makes no mention of Apsara Authority.
“This is the issue of those people,” he said. “It’s not my issue.”
Seven structures were razed on Thursday, according to Apsara Authority spokesman Long Kosal, who deemed the first day a “success.”
“The working group of the removal committee will continue their operation tomorrow, until the removal of the 500 illegal constructions is finished,” he said.
The evictions have been backed by the U.N., though Cambodia’s Unesco office has been unclear on the number of total structures set for demolition. No U.N. representatives attended Thursday’s evictions.
Accusations of authorities turning a blind eye to construction in Angkor during the lead-up to elections are nothing new, extending back to at least the 2013 election period. Last month, Apsara Authority director Sum Map admitted that those claims were largely true, adding that officials had turned a blind eye earlier this year in order to maintain calm and avoid violence.
But after the elections, Apsara’s eye refocused on the string of villages inside the park where new structures had popped up, and that focus was soon followed by eviction notices.
“I built the house here because before, Apsara never came to remove houses,” Ms. Chantrea said. “But this time, they did. I think the authorities removed the construction today because the [CNRP] won.”
Apsara’s Mr. Kosal has maintained that illegal constructions are subject to removal, and has said his authority is simply enforcing the law.
The new CNRP commune chief in Nokor Thom, Seang Chamnap, on Thursday put the blame on the authorities for the problems of new construction in the heritage site.
“People asked permission from the commune and village chiefs, but [the chiefs] did not instruct people to send the letter to Apsara Authority to get permission for construction,” he said.
“I think the people are very scared of authorities, so if authorities instruct them not to build in the banned areas, they do not dare to do it.”
Mr. Chamnap said he felt sorry for the villagers, whom he claimed were misled by authorities and were now suffering the consequences.
“Many of them are poor,” he said. “Many of them took out loans for construction.”
Ms. Chanthrea said she borrowed $3,000 from Prasac Microfinance Institution, adding that Prasac representatives had visited the site where she planned to build the home and still lent her the money. Now that her home is gone, she wondered how she could afford to repay the loan.
Other villagers also reported taking out loans from microfinance institutions for their construction, burdening them with debt for structures unlikely to exist much longer.
As police started the massive operation on Thursday inside the country’s most popular tourist attraction, there was an attempt to keep a low profile.
Trucks filled with police officers merged into the one-lane roads filled with tuk-tuks and tourist buses, and officers directed vehicles at eviction sites to prevent traffic jams. Upon arriving at Ms. Chantrea’s home, reporters were immediately ordered by officials to leave.
“My working group does not allow you to report this case,” said Chhoeung Sophea, a police officer at the scene. “You cannot take photos,” added another official in plainclothes, who declined to give his name and repeatedly told reporters to “read the law.”
When asked which Cambodian law applied to taking photographs inside Angkor Archaeological Park, he responded “state law,” declining to elaborate.
After Ms. Chantrea’s home was demolished, authorities moved to dismantle a larger concrete structure behind the rubble, highlighting the heavy road ahead for Apsara Authority.
The coming days and weeks appear set to host a long trail of evictions—and loss—among the world-famous ruins of Angkor.