Controversy Surrounds New Home for Squatters

In 1998, Mao Pesey moved into Borei Keila, a compound of concrete buildings near Olympic Stadium initially built to house athletes in the 1960s, but which now houses squatters.

The 26-year-old motorbike-taxi driver soon became worried by the increasing number of gangsters, glue-sniffers and drug users walking in and around Borei Keila and the wooden shack village that has sprung up on the land.

So when he learned that the Phnom Penh municipality recently signed a contract with Phani­mex Co Ltd to tear down the old complex and construct a new building to house the squatters, Mao Pesey smiled.

“I am very happy to have a new house,” he said. “Living in here is currently not safe.”

Phanimex will construct a

$7 million, seven-story building with 1,776 apartments to house the squatters, said Kim Thong, an adviser for Phanimex. The company is ready to start constructing the building, which will span two hectares of land, whenever the municipality gives it permission.

That will take some time, said Mann Chhoeun, cabinet chief of the municipality, because the city needs to build temporary housing for the squatters while their new home is being built.

“We will ask the people whether they like the design plan or not,” Mann Chhoeun said. “If not, the people can discuss with the company before construction.”

Instead of being paid in cash for the building, the construction company will receive an additional 2.6 hectares, on which it can build whatever it wants, he added.

Not all of the squatters in Borei Keila are happy about the project. Some who have lived there for years are upset that the city is treating them the same as squatter families that just moved into the compound.

Immediately after the Khmer Rouge regime was ousted in 1979, now-Senate President Chea Sim turned the building into a training department for Ministry of Interior officials and allowed the families of 10 ministry officials to live in the concrete building.

Throughout the years, squatters have moved into the building, upsetting the 10 families that moved there in 1979.

“I am dissatisfied with Phnom Penh municipality because they provide the newcomer and old comer equally with a flat,” said Nhek Pov, 28, who has lived in Borei Keila about 25 years.

In September, the 10 families wrote the municipality a letter, threatening to stay in their houses and delay construction of the new building unless the city allows them to live on the ground floor and pays them $1,500 each.

Tek Chea Oeun, a member of the original 10 families, plans to lead a protest in front of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house if the city forces her to leave.

Instead of being offered an apartment in the new building, she wants to sell her apartment. With that money, she said, she could afford to build a house in the countryside.

“We were cheated,” she said.

The squatters, who number 1,776 families, plan to fight the plans of the original 10 families. They are legitimate residents with the documents to prove it, said Sam Sarin, president of the Borei Samaky Community Federation, which represents the squatters.

The new building should be for squatters who have lived in Borei Keila for more than three years, he said.

The squatters also have a different plan for the ground floor. They want to install a kindergarten and a parking lot, and any additional space would be rented out to businesses, with proceeds going to the federation.

“If we have a lot of money,” Sam Sarin said, “the federation will pay the water and electricity bills for people who are community members.”

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