Residents of the Chamkarmon district neighborhood gutted by fire last month watched Monday morning as the last standing homes and businesses were torn down by government officials .
The area is now being transformed into a public garden, and the remaining residents have been asked to leave.
The government is providing land owners with new lots about 17 km outside of Phnom Penh, just past the airport, but those who only rented space in the neighborhood have been told to find somewhere else to live and sell their goods.
Hach Ben, a former tenant, watched as the roof of his home was ripped off and thrown to the ground beside him. He rented his home for $12 a month, before his owner moved. Hach Ben, a motorbike taxi driver, pulled 1,000 riel out of his pocket and stared blankly at it. “This is all I have right now. I can’t afford to find another place,” he said.
Despite the onlookers objections, deputy chief of Tonle Bassac commune, Sou Samorn, continued to order the destruction of the houses.
“We are poor,” one woman shouted. “We don’t have any other place to rent and we need the government to help us.”
But Sou Samorn replied that only those who own land are permitted to move to the new lots.
“Those who only rent must go to other places,” he said. “The government cannot afford to settle this problem—we don’t have enough land.”
The renters are not the only ones feeling the pressure of being displaced. Many of the business owners are worried that their businesses will suffer in their new locale. One middle-aged woman who has been selling fruits, drinks and household items in the neighborhood for almost three years said she doesn’t expect to have as many customers at her new home.
“Here there are many people,” she said, “but I don’t know who I will sell my things to once I move. And…they will not give us farmland, only land to build houses.”
There has also been some discrepancies over the distribution of the new lots. Ay-Seng Hieng, 31, has been running a motorcycle repair shop in Chamkarmon district for the past four years. He believes people paid off the government to secure one of the 10 best lots in the new location. “If I could get a lot by the road I could do my business, but I didn’t know that the good pieces of land could be negotiated,” he said.
Chamkarmon district Governor Chey Salong says he is unaware of any bribery taking place during the relocation process.
“Everyone is complaining,” he said. “People say they are too far away from the road—and they can’t do business—or they are too far away from the water, it all depends on luck. I can’t help everyone.”