When police officers and soldiers carrying AK-47s ordered Thi Be Nguyen on Wednesday to leave her home of 20 years near the Monivong Bridge, she left behind her three small children because she was afraid the sampan she was in would sink.
The sampan riverboat carrying Nguyen and her 65-year-old mother was dragged by authorities in another boat heading south on the Bassac River. After traveling about 3 km, the sampan was let go to float down the river.
Police officers and soldiers repeated that routine numerous times Wednesday, when authorities removed sampans and floating houses belonging to ethnic Vietnamese villagers who live on the south side of Monivong Bridge in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district.
“We don’t steal anything and we don’t commit any crimes, but we’re treated so bad,” 30-year-old Nguyen said. “It’s so hard for people here.”
Authorities said they would give Vietnamese whose floating homes were removed 10,000 riel ($2.60) in compensation, but actually they were given 2,000 riel, villagers said.
The villagers are being moved because they are illegal immigrants, said Chea Sophara, first deputy governor of Phnom Penh. They also are an eyesore and pollute the waters of the Bassac, he said.
As of Wednesday, 178 sampans and floating houses on the Bassac were removed from the Chbar Ampou commune area, said Em Sokleang, deputy governor for Meanchey district and head of the commission charged with kicking out the villagers. About 755 families live in the Meanchey district near the Monivong Bridge.
Officials said the removal of the Vietnamese is a step-by-step process.
Today, authorities plan to kick out the sampans and floating houses in Chak Angre Leu and Chak Angre Krom communes on the southern side of Monivong Bridge, where 200 families live.
As soon as they arrived around 8 am Wednesday, officers and soldiers began cutting the ropes that kept the sampans and homes from floating away, although villagers protested. Authorities riding in a police boat shouted directions to the villagers through a megaphone.
There were no violent incidents Wednesday morning, said Chhey Vibol, a Licadho human rights worker who was there to observe the removal of the villagers to ensure that rights weren’t being violated.
Chheng Lon, police chief of Chbar Ampou commune, said although some Vietnamese cursed the officers and soldiers, authorities were patient and did their best to peacefully remove the villagers.
Dozens of sampans and floating houses that were being pulled by boats carrying authorities could be seen Wednesday morning making their way down the Bassac.
Some villagers frantically destroyed their sampans, so authorities would not have any evidence that they lived in the area. Some villagers became covered in mud as they worked to follow orders from authorities, while others were shoulder-deep in the waters of the Bassac.
Some of the villagers who were kicked out, like Thi Be Nguyen, came back in the afternoon, although it was against orders.
Many of the kicked out villagers went to Prek Bra, about
4 km away from their homes.
But the Cambodians living there did not want the Vietnamese there and some of them were attacked and were not allowed to secure their sampans so they wouldn’t float away, Nguyen said.
Nguyen said six Vietnamese were injured by Cambodians.
“The only thing we can do is ask the government to arrange another place to stay where people won’t kick us out,” she said.
Nguyen left her mother in the boat with nothing to eat and came back to her home near the Monivong Bridge by motorbike.
Pu Minh Hoi, 48, said his people are being treated unfairly because they are Vietnamese. Because of Vietnamese invasions, many Cambodians still harbor ill feelings toward their neighbors.
Pu Minh Hoi rents a house on land, so none of his belongings were targeted by authorities. But he said he is afraid that the police will come back and force him to leave.
“If the police come back and tell me to go away, I will have to go because this is not my country,” he said. “I feel sad because I cannot do anything.”
Seng Phalla, 34, a Cambodian villager in Chbar Ampou commune, said he is glad the Vietnamese were being moved out.
“They destroy all the river water,” he said. “In the past, we could use the river water to wash our clothes, but nowadays, we have no way to get to the riverbank because of all the floating houses built by the Vietnamese immigrants.”
Van Giou Nguyen, 26, also came back to his home near the Monivong Bridge after ending up at Prek Bra, where he left his ferry that he uses to raise fish.
“I feel sad because everybody moved out,” he said. “If other people resisted, then I would’ve resisted, but they didn’t.”
He and other villagers said they want to stay in the area because it is close to the Chbar Ampou Market, where they do business by selling fish and other products.
Even though he was kicked out of his home, he said he will still try to stay in Cambodia.
“Here, it’s easy to sell things and earn money,” said Nguyen, who has been living near the Monivong Bridge since 1989. “If it’s possible to keep staying here, then I will stay.”