PHNOM BAT COMMUNE, Kandal province – Sitting beneath her tin shack in a dusty settlement here on Thursday, 73-year-old Buot Mom broke down in tears as she recalled the day four years ago that bulldozers descended on her former home in Phnom Penh’s Borei Keila community to evict her and her neighbors.
“The people from Borei Keila refused to leave. They burned car tires and the authorities arrived and used water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets to shoot at us,” Ms. Mom said.
“People living there were not able to get their possessions before they were smashed down,” she said. “Then they ordered us to get into the truck and dropped us about 1 km from here.”
Ms. Mom was recalling January 3, 2012, when, after years of struggle with the company Phanimex, military police and police clashed with around 200 villagers who attempted to protect their homes in the capital.
Members of the community had been promised new homes in return for giving up their land to the firm in 2003, with Phanimex—which is owned by businesswoman Suy Sophan—announcing that it would build 10 apartment blocks to house the 1,776 affected families. In the end, the company constructed only eight buildings, leaving more than 300 families still at the site with no housing resettlement plan.
Once authorities had flattened the homes of the evictees, many of the residents were dumped at designated relocation sites in Phnom Penh’s Dangkao district and Phnom Bat, a barren strip of land around 40 km outside of the capital that resembled a refugee camp, where villagers temporarily lived in flimsy tents donated by NGOs.
Four years later, the tents have made way for small shacks, some of which have mango trees growing alongside them. A few vendors have also sprung up, selling drinks and snacks. Ms. Mom, a former rubbish collector and dessert vendor, now cooks up Khmer noodles and rice porridge for customers on her front porch.
Despite some improvements at Phnom Bat, which sits at the foot of Oudong Mountain, all residents interviewed on Thursday spoke of the desperation and crippling poverty they continue to experience at the site.
“We face big problems because we don’t have clean water, a health center or jobs to make money. We have to live here with no revenue,” said Seang Chanda, 43, a former fish vendor who has not managed to find steady work since she was relocated.
“Of course, in Borei Keila it was easy to make money…. I sold a basket of fish a day and would earn 50,000 riel [about $12.50].”
Although around 140 people are based at Phnom Bat, in reality only about 40 live there permanently, as the lack of job opportunities in the area has forced them to seek work elsewhere. Residents interviewed said many of the community’s men were currently working on a cassava plantation in Ratanakkiri province, around 500 km away, while some of the young women have entered more dangerous lines of work in the capital.
“After we moved here some young women moved to work in karaoke bars or beer malls in the nighttime and would get paid for having sex. They didn’t have to do that in Borei Keila, but here they had no way of earning money so they had to do that,” Ms. Chanda said.
Drug and alcohol addiction among the small number who stayed is an issue, she said as an intoxicated neighbor breastfed a child next to her, although she conceded that similar problems had plagued the community before the eviction.
When Phanimex provided apartments for some residents but not others, it not only divided the community geographically, but also created deep rifts between former neighbors. Those living at the resettlement site, and about 80 families still living in squalid conditions under the apartments, feel they have received insufficient support from those who were granted apartments.
“We are jealous of them. Some other people who did not get homes are now living in trash below, waiting for more compensation. They are angry with the other residents. I don’t think those people worry about us here; they’re just concerned about their living standards,” Ms. Chanda said.
“You need to understand, Khmer people don’t help those who have problems,” added her husband Ban Thoun. “Since I moved here, I have lost my life savings—around $7,000—because we are not able to make money.”
Opinion among Phnom Bat residents was split on what they hoped for from authorities and Phanimex, with some saying they would keep fighting for a new plot of land in Phnom Penh while others had resigned themselves to life in Kandal province.
“We plan to ask for more compensation from the company. We demand $3,000 to $5,000 for each family and we want to return to live in the city,” Ms. Chanda said.
However, Ms. Mom said she was unenthused by the thought of moving yet again, and had accepted the idea that she would see out her days at Phnom Bat making 6,000 riel (about $1.50) a day from her stall.
“Now I’m happy to live here because I have a house and a little money. Of course, before the eviction my living standards were better but I don’t want to go back to Phnom Penh because I’m afraid of facing similar problems,” she said.
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said on Friday that he had “no time” to discuss the Phnom Bat settlement and added that there were no plans to make further improvements to the site.
Noeu Kong, a motorcycle-taxi driver who finds sporadic work around Oudong Mountain, said he had almost given up hope that the government or Phanimex would arrange a plot of land for them in the capital.
“Of course I want to go back to the city, but how can we go back? We just want the government and company to build a school and a health center so at least we can live here comfortably,” he said.
“I tell you the truth: My kids go to the pagoda and they have to beg. In Phnom Penh, sometimes they would collect trash for money, but they would never beg.”
(Additional reporting by Sek Odom)