In Eviction-Hit Community, Long-Silent Families Speak Out

Yang Sarim sat in front of her home in Phnom Penh’s Prampi Makara district eating lunch on Wednesday afternoon, as she has often done over the past 17 years. But things aren’t normal for the 73-year-old, whose apartment building is slated for demolition.

The Veal Vong deputy commune chief has silently watched for five years as the families around her protest evictions forced upon the Borei Keila community by construction company Phanimex.

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Kin Chantha’s daughter plays with her grandchildren in the family’s apartment in Phnom Penh’s eviction-hit Borei Keila community. (Emil Kastrup/The Cambodia Daily)

“How would I join a protest to prevent or oppose authority if I am working as a government official?” Ms. Sarim asked. After years without an offer of sufficient compensation, families like Ms. Sarim’s have decided to make themselves heard.

On Thursday, a group of 20 Borei Keila residents who had never participated in the communities’ five years of protests made the trek to Phnom Penh City Hall.

They asked for a settlement, feeling threatened as 15 other families may potentially lose their chances of compensation today if the government enforces a deadline it set several weeks ago.

The group represents approximately 30 families, all with members who are lower-level police officers or government officials—who have also lived in the building—awaiting compensation without saying a word, said Sia Phearum, director for the Housing Rights Task Force.

On Thursday, they stood alongside the group of 154 protest-hardened families violently evicted from their community in 2012 to make way for private developments.

Mr. Phearun said their calls for a fair deal was more likely to be heard.

“City Hall is like their parents, so they have to look out for their baby,” he said.

Ms. Sarim, who did not go to City Hall on Thursday, said she was offered $9,000 a few years ago, but she refused. She hoped to receive $30,000 instead.

As the time limit closes on a compensation offer to the 15 families defiantly occupying a building she shares, Ms. Sarim now worries her demands will be forgotten.

“I heard from district authorities it’s the last time, and they want the 15 families to receive compensation, but how about us?” she asked. “They never recognized our group, and we just kept quiet as they told us.”

About 90 percent of the 154 protesting families have accepted some form of payment or resettlement depending on what ownership documentation they have.

Though the government says the 15 occupying families must accept compensation by today or forfeit any future claims, City Hall spokesman Met Measpheakdey said authorities had not decided whether the building would come down.

“It’s their last time to decide, even though we will consider before knocking it down,” he said.

The 30 families with links to the government can get the same offer that the original 154 families have received, Mr. Measpheakdey said. In 2015, municipality spokesman Long Dimanche said new housing in apartment blocks in Borei Keila, a house in Andong village on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, or $3,000 were offered as part of the compensation.

Another resident, Kin Chantha, 53, shares Ms. Sarim’s fear. Ms. Chantha is married to a police officer, and her family was led to believe they would receive more compensation than the protesting families.

“My husband told me that I can’t join [the] protest and should wait for the government to offer money, which would be lots more than those protesters,” she said. “Now I worry when they knock down the building, City Hall will recognize only the 15 families living here.”

(Additional reporting by Danielle Keeton-Olsen)

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