The director of the government body that manages the Angkor Archaeological Park on Wednesday conceded that the hundreds of families they are now struggling to evict were allowed to move into the park illegally in the lead-up to the June 4 commune elections, though he defended the decision.
The Apsara Authority says more than 500 families built homes and shops inside the park—where construction is restricted to protect the surrounding temples—without permission in the weeks before the elections and that it has been urging them since to tear the buildings down and leave.
The authority has been claiming that the squatters were told to stop building before the election but continued to settle in behind their backs. The squatters say the authorities were well aware of what they were doing and did nothing, possibly to secure their votes for the ruling CPP.
At a news conference in Siem Reap province on Wednesday, Apsara Authority director Sum Map conceded that local officials did little to stop the families, claiming they did not want to spark unrest ahead of the elections.
“We did not dare to stop people from constructing the houses in the Angkor Archaeological Park because the Apsara Authority was worried there would be violence if we confronted the people, and we ignored it because we wanted the commune elections to go smoothly,” he said.
“We told those people not to build houses in the Angkor Park because they were not allowed to do it in the banned area, but those people never listened to our authorities,” he added.
Mr. Map said the World Heritage Center, which monitors the park and other designated world heritage sites around the world, had written to the Apsara Authority asking why the families were allowed to build.
He said the authority had explained the situation and said it was working to clear them out.
Deputy provincial governor Ly Samrith said the families now had until next week to raze their homes and shops and leave, or the authorities would do it for them. He did not give an exact deadline.
Contacted after the news conference, however, Apsara Authority spokesman Long Kosal said a day had been set, but officials were reluctant to disclose it in order to catch the squatters by surprise.
“We will start removing the illegal construction on Monday, but this is unofficial information,” he said.
The government’s decision not to stop the squatters from moving in may have only delayed the showdown it was aiming to avoid. Sin Vuthy, one of the squatters, said the authorities bear some of the blame for the situation and he would resist any attempt to remove him.
“I will ask the Apsara Authority not to remove my house because I took out a $13,000 loan to build it,” he said. “If they do not accept my request we will protest against the removal because this is not totally the fault of the people; it is also the fault of the authorities.”