Lakeside Squatters Wary of Relocation Plan

In front of a small restaurant with rusty metal siding and a sunk­en roof, a crowd of guests were eating their lunch, swatting at the flies flitting around their food.

The street in front of the restaurant was littered with garbage and a stench drifted west from Phnom Penh’s Boeng Salang lake. People held their breath as they walk by.

“It looks like hell. I always hold my nose when I bring my things past here,” Phsar Daum Kor vendor Phen Sokha said. “It smells like dead people when they burn it.”

Phen Sokha is not the only passerby who hates Boeng Sa­lang commune.

“I think these people have polluted it with their stench and garbage. They are susceptible to disease, their health is so weak,” said university student Say Sen­nary, 21.

Critics of the commune will not have to wait much longer. Nearly 400 of the families squatting here will have to move to a new neighborhood near Pochentong Airport  early next year to make room for an urban development project, city officials said. Auth­orities are planning a park, complete with flower gardens, playground equipment and a redredged, clean lakefront.

City officials have cast the relocation as a rescue.

“They have built their cottages with toilets right on the lake. So I need to save them from the dirty place and bring them to another place with a good environment to im­prove their health,” Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara said.

As bad as the park is, though, for many it is still home.

“I have a house on the lake and I am happy there,” said Boeng Salang vendor Khan Channy, 32.

And even those who would like a shot at a better place to live are afraid they will lose what little they have in the move, some residents and activists say.

“Officials always say, ‘People will be happy to move.’ But in fact, they’re really unhappy unless they get enough compensation,” UN Habitat Technical Adviser Peter Swan said.

While Swan said he’s glad to hear of a city plan to move the Boeng Salang squatters to a better place, officials must remember it’s going to cost the residents.

Many will have to look for new work closer to their new homes. They will have to rent houses while their new ones are built. They will have to take time off from work to move. Students will have to change schools and, in some cases, start all over, Swan said.

Those concerns were on the mind of Leng Sitha, a tailor living at Boeng Salang. While happy to hear of a chance at a new home, she said she was not sure she could find new customers there.

“I want to keep my career—it’s my only skill,” she said.

The Boeng Salang project is budgeted for $3.5 million. Besides the park, it includes remodeling the Boeng Salang water pump to help Phnom Penh fight yearly floods, Bureau of Urban Affairs architect You Sethy said.

The city’s project is scheduled to take over a 2-km swath of land between Street 220 and the water pump, You Sethy said.

Meanwhile, the Japanese have developed a smaller project on their own that would rehabilitate the area between Street 336 and the water pump, You Sethy said.

Whatever project the city settles on, it won’t leave the squatters to their own devices; it will give them enough compensation to start a new life, Chea Sophara said.

“We’ve never forgotten the poor people who live in the west,” the governor said. But “Phnom Penh doesn’t want people living in the west anymore.”

Residents say they are hopeful, but resigned in either case.

“If the government wants us to move,” Boeng Salang vendor Chea Sry, 34, said, “we must re­spect the plan.”

 

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