Under the shadow of the new National Assembly building, the relocation of more than 1,000 families living in the Tonle Bassac commune Village 14 began on Wednesday, but made little headway in the face of widespread resistance.
In the end, only about 20 to 40 families volunteered to be taken to the relocation site in Dangkao district, and many of those remaining said they feared force would be used to finish the job.
As six large removal trucks streamed into the village’s main street before 7 am, the Sour Srun company’s efforts to move the families from the land, which may become a shopping mall, looked promising. A dozen more trucks were parked outside.
A group of villagers hired by the company for the demolition work quickly dismantled two huts. But the third structure they moved to dismantle, a makeshift restaurant and shop, proved to be a stumbling block. A woman claiming ownership of the structure refused to leave.
The workers were forced to stop their dismantling, leading to a standoff that then led to hundreds of village residents staging a sit-down protest in a nearby street.
“I never volunteered to leave for the new site and I don’t have a plot of land over there,” cried Ken Sothy, the woman claiming ownership of the structure.
“Don’t remove my house; wait until my husband comes home,” she said.
Deputy village chief Muol Dina tried with the assistance of a group of young, uniformed “village guards” to dismantle another house. As several women began shouting, a woman identifying herself as a representative of a little-known NGO, the International Cooperation for Social Research Education, produced a megaphone and organized a mass sit-down.
The woman, Chhem Pichsovann, suggested that the angry villagers go to the nearby Sam Rainsy Party headquarters to protest, which protesters outside the village entrance did.
Sam Rainsy, leader of the party bearing his name, arrived and told the crowd he would fight to get them proper houses, and would write an immediate letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen requesting a delay in the mass removal.
“It is like dumping people…they should be given proper houses,” Sam Rainsy later said by telephone.
Municipal Governor Kep Chuktema said no delay in the eviction was possible. “The problem is with the renters,” he said of the thousands of people who are apparently renting space in the homes of the 1,000 families due for eviction
“We have a solution for them, but not now,” the governor added.
Mathieu Pellerin of local rights group Licadho said about 20 families were moved to empty new plots of land in Dangkao district.
“It is hard to see where they will sleep; maybe under the roof of the school,” he said.
Authorities denied Licadho permission to distribute tents to 13 families that were left homeless at Tonle Bassac on Wednesday.
As Wednesday wore on, a makeshift fence was being erected at the front of the disputed village, and village guards told NGO workers and journalists that they needed “permission” to continue talking to residents.
UN Habitat program officer Keo Davy said she was worried about the possibility of violence if the eviction proceeds. “The rainy season, it is not the best time to move them. The company should do some land-filling first,” she said of the flooded, muddy site in Dangkao district.
Municipal Police Commissioner Touch Naruth said violence would not be used to enforce the removals.
Sour Srun representative Huy Chhor said that the company will employ about 80 workers on Thursday to speed up the process, and that it will erect barriers to keep troublemakers out of Village 14.
Huy Chhor blamed NGO workers for his company’s inability to relocate more people.
“There was a hindrance to the eviction today because some NGOs blocked our process, talking to the villagers,” he said. “Forty families moved to the site after 2 pm. They can set up tents and stay there.”
(Reporting by Chhim Sopheark, Prak Chan Thul and Erik Wasson)