takhmau district, Kandal province – Looking around the dusty field where about 40 families were busy erecting the frames for stilt homes or lying under tarpaulin to avoid the sun, Tith Leang Heng was reminded of a similar scene 30 years ago.
When the Khmer Rouge stormed Phnom Penh in April 1975, Tith Leang Heng was one of thousands forced to leave their homes and trek through the country to whatever fate awaited them.
Last week, Tith Leang Heng was evicted from Phnom Penh after officials ordered squatters, who had built shacks on the pavements of Chamkar Mon district, to move to a field in Kandal province.
“In 1975, we carried our stuff ourselves,” she said from beneath her tarp on Wednesday. “Now the only thing different is we had a truck to carry our stuff.”
Chamkar Mon officials said last week that 76 families were to be evicted. Only about 40 have actually moved to this field, while the rest have gone elsewhere. Families that followed orders and moved received a 15-by-7 meter plot of undeveloped land in Takhmau district.
Chamkar Mon Deputy Governor Prum Samkhann said the land costs $7 per square meter and has been registered in their names.
But villagers say the land is all but worthless as it is too small to grow crops, there is no market nearby and a school for their children is distant compared to when they were in the city.
Mam Bun Neang, Phnom Penh deputy governor, took offense at the villagers comparing their relocation to the outskirts of the city with the 1975 evacuation of Phnom Penh.
“What they said is unfair,” he said. “We prepared water wells and provided them with supplies.”
“We did not force them,” he added.
Villagers also said Wednesday that they had to borrow money with steep interest rates to buy materials to build new homes.
“I don’t think I can live here,” said Srey Sokhoeun, who sent her five children to stay with her sister in Phnom Penh so they could go to school. “If I cannot make a business, I will go back.”
One of Srey Sokhoeun’s neighbors was already packing up to move back to the capital Wednesday morning.
“It’s too far, and there is no business,” said the woman, who declined to give her name. “At first I tried to build a house here but did not have enough money. I feel tired.”
The former Chamkar Mon squatters aren’t the only ones thinking of moving back.
Less than 100 meters away, former residents of Koh Pich—the contested island property opposite the NagaCorp casino—had built what homes they could afford with the promised $150 in compensation several months ago.
But instead of $150, the villagers said they received only $100 and 100 kg of rice.
“I regret that I moved here,” said former Koh Pich resident Duch Dourk.
“Before we got here, we were promised this and that, but they don’t do anything.”
He said more than 70 families moved to the area more than two months ago but many have left because there is no way to make money here.
The villagers said they felt cheated and warned those still fighting to remain on Koh Pich not to accept any deal offered to them.
“We want to tell the people on Koh Pich, ‘Don’t come,’” Duch Dourk said.
On the other side of the makeshift settlement being erected by the former Chamkar Mon squatters, heavy machinery is leveling land and filling in ponds to prepare for the remaining Koh Pich inhabitants.
A municipal eviction order for the more than 40 families remaining on Koh Pich passed without incident on Monday.