sihanoukville – Duk Von, 40, can hear the waves lapping at the foot of Queen’s Hill more clearly now that there are no houses or shops between her and the sea.
Since her concrete home at the end of Sihanoukville’s O’Chheuteal Beach was razed last Sunday—along with establishments belonging to about 23 families in an unauthorized operation led by Cambodian-American lawyer David Chanaiwa—she has been sleeping on a hammock stretched across a platform that leans out over an inlet of the Gulf of Thailand.
The 300 meters of shoreline where her house once stood amid a cluster of modest fishing huts are now a mix of broken bricks and concrete rubble. Pieces of charred wood and strips of palm roof that have been mashed into the sand by bulldozers poke out from the tracks left by the heavy machines.
Towering over the mess is a four-story concrete mansion-in-progress, for which the view is now, also, straight through to the sea.
Accounts of the evictions vary, but somewhere between 15 and 30 families had their homes and shops bulldozed Sunday and Monday. All were reportedly paid compensation ranging from $1,000 to $10,000, and no one was hurt—though a sizable fire engulfed a large restaurant Sunday night. It is unclear who started the fire.
Chanaiwa, who is also an assistant to Senate and CPP President Chea Sim, admitted that he had not applied for or received permission to bulldoze the area. But, Chanaiwa said, he had been in private negotiations with villagers for the last six months and had reached an agreement with everyone that included compensation from his own pocket and a temporary offer of land for them to move to.
“Municipal governor of Sihanoukville Say Hak said I had no permission, it’s true,” Chanaiwa said by telephone Wednesday, explaining that he needed to bulldoze the houses first so as to know the size of “the exact area before obtaining permission.”
Chaniawa said that he would now contact officials for permission to develop the area into what he hopes to call “Chea Sim’s Garden.”
He said the project will cost $350,000 and it is his intention to clean up the area and raise the living standard of its residents.
“When I make it a better environment, people will come to live there and will have more activity,” he said, claiming that he would provide the area’s former residents with rent-free places to live and work in the same area.
“I hope people understand I am trying to contribute, to make their environment better. I love the place. I love the people,” he said.
Duk Von, wife of a fisherman and mother of three, said she understands that development is good for Sihanoukville, but said she does not see it benefiting everyone.
“They have to think of us,” she said, adding that the eviction happened quickly and caught her off guard.
While she had accepted $2,500 in compensation for the house she had built in 1990, she said she felt unable to refuse and now feels personally betrayed by Chanaiwa and has since refused his offer of a temporary place to stay.
“I am fed up, that’s why when he offered land I didn’t accept. I found this small place to live,” she said of her hammock on the platform, surrounded by boxes of dishes salvaged from her former home.
Duk Von said that she and her neighbors had helped Chanaiwa, who has a house nearby, back in 2006 when the Sihanoukville municipality threatened to evict them all.
“We helped him in 2006 fight for his house,” she said, echoing the sentiments of several other villagers who had won the right for the village to remain on the coast.
David Chanaiwa said the evicted villager claims of betrayal are ridiculous. The villagers, he said, accepted his compensation money and temporary use of land and are happy with the deal.
“How many give compensation like I did?” he asked.
He said that the villagers had been living on the land for a long time, since the 1990s, and no one had ever tried to help them by developing the area into something nicer.
“They ask me for help, I give them my help,” he said of his agreement with the villagers to develop the area.
Duk Von’s refusal of the temporary land is a small act of protest in the face of an otherwise smoothly executed eviction, which is one of many such efforts that have recently been executed or are currently being negotiated in rapidly developing Sihanoukville, once known as a laid-back beachy get-away town.
Independence Beach was a vacant and sandy lot surrounded by a green metal fence on Thursday morning after 32 vendors accepted $5,000 each to leave in early February.
Over Queens Hill from the eviction site, along a dirt road just shy of O’Tres Beach that stretches inland, more than 100 families who were violently evicted from Mittapheap district in April 2007 are still living under dusty tarps draped over wooden frames, all in a row.
Phann Bopha, 25, said she worked at Chez Antoine, the restaurant that went up in flames during Sunday’s eviction at the foot of Queen’s Hill.
“I was making a little money,” she said. “Now, I’m not making any money.”
Koy Chhay, 26, who owns Bamboo Shack restaurant on O’Tres, said his position is precarious since the recent order that O’Tres vendors standardize their establishments or face eviction. He said Sunday’s eviction on O’Chheuteal made him nervous-especially the fire.
“They want to change everything very fast,” he said, recalling the market fire in early January that completely destroyed Phsar Leu in Sihanoukville town.
“If the big market can burn…” he said, shaking his head.
Sbong Sarath, municipal deputy governor, said Thursday that a facelift is necessary to better the beaches of Sihanoukville and make it more appealing to a new kind of tourist.
“All the shops will be standardized. We have started our development already,” he said, declining to comment further.
Rumors had spread up and down O’Chheuteal Beach Thursday morning that big-name developers were on their way, though no one knew exactly when or what their plans were.
David Chanaiwa said he plans to develop his end of O’Chheuteal into a picture-perfect public space punctuated by palm trees where people can sit, stroll and watch the sunset.
“Like they have in other countries…. Cleaning up the environment and making it a better place is the contribution of every Cambodian citizen,” he said.
“I want to give them a new vision to see how the beach should look.”