Yeang Byung Soa doubts he’ll be able to comply with a municipal government order to disassemble his house on the Bassac River and relocate by the middle of next month.
“The river is running too high and too fast,” the 58-year-old complained last week. “It would be dangerous to move, and we are likely to lose much property in the process. If the government would only wait a few months, even until the Chinese New Year, we would be satisfied.”
Yeang Byung Soa heads one of the more than 300 ethnic Vietnamese households situated in a floating village at the southern base of the Monivong Bridge in the capital’s Meanchey district. Residents, who bathe and fish in the river that supports their homes, eke out a living by peddling seafood at nearby Chbar Ampou Market.
But to municipal government officials, the ramshackle network of wooden structures the villagers call home constitutes a health and safety hazard, one that detracts from the appearance of what was the region’s most beautiful capital 30 years ago.
On Friday, some local officials oversaw the relocation of 42 families from Phnom Penh to a waterfront area in Kandal province, in what they describe as the first stage of a two-week process.
In response to villagers’ concerns about the timing of their forced relocation, Chea Sophara, first deputy governor of Phnom Penh, questioned whether the government is obliged to address the concerns of “mostly illegal immigrants.”
“We have already spoken to the families, and they have agreed to leave in mid-November,” he said.
“They are mostly residents without any legal documentation….So, if we tell them to go, they must go.”
Chea Sophara, accused last week by Chinese officials of targeting Chinese illegal immigrants in recent crackdowns,
added: “We will address the issue of illegal Vietnamese immigrants in two weeks’ time. But the first object is removing the families from the area near Monivong Bridge.”
For some residents of the floating village, Chea Sophara’s characterization of them is unfair and inaccurate.
One 48-year-old ethnic Vietnamese woman, who identified herself as Mum Leang, said she was born in Phnom Penh and forcibly relocated to Pursat province during the Pol Pot regime.
“I have always lived in Cambodia,” she said. “And maybe 60 percent of the people in this village were born in Cambodia. This is the only country I have ever known.”
Chea Sophara acknowledged some residents of the floating village might have been born in Cambodia but added: “The important thing is the proper documents. During the Untac period, some ethnic Vietnamese were even allowed to vote in the 1993 election, provided they had proper documents.”
Referring to his government’s suggestion the villagers move to Prek Bra, located in the Kien Svay district of Kandal province, he said: “I think it will be a good change for them.”
But the villagers doubt that. Prek Bra, they say, is populated with Cham fishermen. Some Cham hold a historical grudge against the Vietnamese, who conquered their empire centuries ago. The Chams at Prek Bra have strongly protested villagers’ imminent arrival at an area south of their homes.
One 23-year-old Cham vendor who preferred to remain anonymous, confirmed widespread concern in his community.
“We fear they will eventually dominate the area….If you invite a Vietnamese as a guest in your home, he will think he owns it,” the vendor said.
Meanwhile, faced with an uncertain future, Mum Leang chuckled in exasperation. “What will I do?” she asked. “Of course, I have no idea.”