Residents of Phnom Penh’s “White Building” met with officials from City Hall and the Ministry of Land Management on Monday to voice their concerns about a 5-cm-wide crack that shot up the inside of the aging apartment block’s south-facing wall the previous evening.
The crack, which extends from the ground to the roof of the four-story building, is just meters from the half-dug foundation of a planned hotel, and appeared shortly before 6 p.m. on Sunday as a pile driver broke up earth inside the adjacent construction site, according to Khat Narith, chief of Tonle Bassac commune in Chamkar Mon district.
Mr. Narith said the site had been sold by local developer 7NG—which violently evicted hundreds of families from a plot of prime land behind the White Building in 2009 —to a Cambodian businessman named Rithy Samnang.
“The Dey Krahorm community sold it to 7NG, then 7NG sold [part of] it to the businessman,” he said, adding that Mr. Samnang hired the Malaysian construction firm Biaxis to begin digging a foundation for the hotel about a month ago.
7NG spokesman Chheang Bona on Monday said he knew nothing about a deal between his company and Mr. Samnang. Mr. Samnang could not be reached.
Meas Sithan, 50, who has been living with his family in the White Building since the 1980s, said that when the crack appeared in the building on Sunday evening, he and about a dozen other tenants hurried to stop activity on the construction site before more damage could be done.
“We could not let them continue working because the building might have collapsed, so we had to keep them from digging the land,” Mr. Sithan said, adding that residents asked officials to meet with them the next morning.
Keurt Sareth, an undersecretary of state at the Land Management Ministry who met with residents Monday, said the crack had not necessarily been caused by the construction next door.
Mr. Sareth said he had nevertheless asked Mr. Samnang to stop digging the foundation, which he said was for an office building—not a hotel.
“I told the company to stop digging the land because we are checking all reasons the wall might have cracked,” he said, adding that he planned to put a large mirror over the crack on the interior wall. If the crack worsened, he explained, the mirror would shatter.
Mr. Sareth said Mr. Samnang’s construction site was less than 3,000 square meters in size and would therefore only needed approval from City Hall, as only those projects over 3,000 square meters require a license from his ministry.
Asked whether City Hall had authorized Mr. Samnang to construct a building next to the White Building, municipal spokesman Long Dimanche refused to answer the question.
Asked why 7NG had been allowed to sell off part of the land it had promised to develop into a residential and office space, which remains deserted save for parking areas and football pitches, Mr. Dimanche said the company had the right to do with the land whatever it pleased.
“Whether they develop or do anything else is up to the company,” he said. “The company swapped with the community, so the land is the company’s private land. How is that illegal?”
“If they build a cockfighting ring, that would be illegal,” he added.
In August, multiple residents of the White Building, a low-cost housing project built under then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1963 that now houses more than 600 families—said representatives of 7NG had been quietly buying apartments in the building.
The next month, Phnom Penh governor Pa Socheatvong said the White Building had been condemned and needed to be demolished, though City Hall later backtracked amid public outcry over the comments.