Expressway Plans Scrapped Amid Eviction Fears

Ambitious plans for an elevated expressway above a set of derelict railway tracks linking central Phnom Penh to the airport have been scrapped, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced on Tuesday, two months after senior government officials warned that it would negatively impact at least a thousand families to the political advantage of certain “bad individuals.”

“I will not allow the expressway to be built,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “If brothers and sisters ask, just tell them the prime minister announced that it will not be built. It is done.”

Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks during the inauguration of a new building at Phnom Penh City Hall on Tuesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks during the inauguration of a new building at Phnom Penh City Hall on Tuesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

The prime minister was speaking during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a 12-story building inside the City Hall compound off Monivong Boulevard. He did not explain his decision to cancel the plans for the expressway—announced in January as a means to ease mounting traffic congestion in the city—but said it should come as a relief to residents living beside the railway tracks along the proposed route.

“Please, brothers and sisters living along the railway from Phnom Penh to Pochentong [Phnom Penh International Airport], stop conducting demonstrations, stop demanding to hold public forums,” he said. “Now, if we don’t build it, it’s not necessary to hold public forums because there is nothing to talk about.”

Residents interviewed on Tuesday weren’t so sure.

“Our communities were happy to see Samdech’s [Mr. Hun Sen’s] announcement not allowing the expressway to be built, but I don’t truly believe him yet,” said Sar Sreyna, 36, who has been living along the tracks in Tuol Kok district since 2007.

“He’s only verbally announced that the expressway will not be built; no official paperwork has been issued yet,” she said.

This sentiment was echoed by Meng Kuon, 51, who has been living along the tracks in Russei Keo district since 1988, feeding her family with fares collected by her husband, a moto-taxi driver.

“It’s not happening now, but I’ve heard that it will be constructed sometime in 2020,” she said.

Fearing eviction, eight communities living beside the tracks have held a series of demonstrations against the proposed expressway since first catching wind of the plans.

And according to a letter to the prime minister by a group of senior government officials tasked with studying offers from interested investors, their fears were well founded.

The letter, which was signed by then-Deputy Prime Minister Keat Chhon and sent earlier this year, said the ad hoc committee urged the prime minister to consider a build-operate-transfer proposal from China’s Henan Provincial Communications Planning Survey and Design Institute, which would see the construction of a four-lane roadway at a cost of about $260 million.

It dismissed a $220 million build-operate-own proposal from the Overseas Cambodia Investment Corporation, citing the “controversy” that would result from the juxtaposition of a privately owned structure on a stretch of state land.

But both proposals, the letter warned, could prove bad publicity for the government ahead of the 2017 commune elections and 2018 national election. It said the expressway would negatively affect at least a thousand families.

“Actually, 2017 and 2018 are election years. The start of the project or impact resolution within this period of time could give opportunities to a number of bad individuals to turn this into a bigger issue for political advantage.”

(Additional reporting by Sek Odom)

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