As he watched his Vietnamese neighbors being kicked out of their homes near Monivong Bridge Thursday, Hak Sophany thanked the government for cleaning up the area by ridding it of the Vietnamese.
Human rights groups, however, began to question the government’s tactics and wondered whether the Vietnamese are being treated fairly.
Hak Sophany, a 25-year-old monk, said he was glad the Vietnamese were leaving because they pollute the area around Wat Chak Angre Krom, on the south side of Monivong Bridge.
“Please keep the area in front of the wat clean and ban the Vietnamese immigrants from coming to stay in front of the wat again,” he said in an appeal to authorities.
About 382 floating houses and sampans on the south side of Monivong Bridge in Chak Angre Leu and Chak Angre Krom communes were kicked out Thursday as authorities continued their removal of Vietnamese villagers, said Em Sokleang, deputy governor of Meanchey District.
About 178 floating homes and sampans were removed Wednesday from the north side of Monivong Bridge. A total of 656 sampans and floating homes have so far been kicked out of Meanchey district, Em Sokleang said.
Chea Sophara, first deputy governor of Phnom Penh, said the villagers were being kicked out because they are illegal immigrants. Authorities, however, did not ask the villagers for residency documents before they were removed. Chea Sophara also said they are an eyesore and pollute the waters of the Bassac River.
Licadho, Adhoc and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights are among the rights groups monitoring the removal.
Kek Galabru, founder of Licadho, said Thursday that if those Vietnamese villagers are indeed illegal immigrants, the government shouldn’t have allowed them to stay in the first place. “They have been there for years and now the government kicks them out without giving them another place to stay,” Kek Galabru said. “If the government always respected the law, they wouldn’t have the problem of illegal immigrants.”
Another human rights official noted that there needs to be a fair process to determine who is illegal and who is not. The rights official also noted the Constitution guarantees basic human rights irrespective of nationality.
On Thursday, some villagers protested, a few tried to negotiate with authorities, and others seemed resigned to their fate.
Several of the Vietnamese children who are too young to understand that they are being kicked out of their homes continued to play and swim in the river. The older children cried or yelled at police and soldiers. One girl carrying two black puppies sobbed as she watched authorities tie her home to their boat so it could be dragged away.
An elderly woman who was washing clothes as she watched homes and sampans being taken away lost her balance and fell into the water when soldiers tried to get around her.
Most of the villagers went to Prek Bra, about 4 km from their homes. But the people living there did not want the Vietnamese to stay and did not let them dock their sampans.
Lim Phai, chairman of management at the Urban Sector Group, an NGO focusing on squatter rights, said the situation is a sensitive one because the Vietnamese are accused of being illegal immigrants and the locals do not want them. “It’s hard to defend them in this situation,” he said. “It’s very difficult to decide what is the best solution.”
The removal of the Vietnamese follows a crackdown on illegal Chinese immigrants. Chea Sophara said the move to kick out the Vietnamese shows he is equally applying the rules.
Loc Dong Chu, press attache for the Vietnamese Embassy, said his government hopes the local officials consider the safety of villagers and respect property in the process of removal.
Chu declined to comment on whether the Vietnamese villagers were being treated unfairly, except to say “I think all foreigners should be treated equally.” Chu said as of Thursday, no villagers had contacted the embassy for assistance.