A long-running feud between two market owners came to a head in Preah Sihanouk province on Thursday when scores of vendors faced down security forces deployed to evict them—at the behest of one of the owners, the vendors say.
The dispute started in 2011 when businessman Phen Sokhon constructed the Kang Keng market along National Road 4 in Prey Nop district, angering the owner of the larger Smach Deng market, built just across the busy highway four years earlier.
“I demanded that the authorities seek justice for me because I spent a lot of money on the market,” said Smach Deng owner Soth Sampanh, 64, a former district police chief in Phnom Penh.
But neither the money spent—$300,000—nor Smach Deng’s larger floor space—7,000 square meters accommodating 300 stalls—could change the fact that Kang Keng was built in a better location.
“Vendors prefer to work at the Kang Keng market because it is located right next to National Road 4,” conceded Mr. Sampanh. “Smach Deng is located further from the road.”
So when 30 police and military police officers showed up at Kang Keng before sunrise on Thursday to block vendors from entering with their wares—with plans to remove all 125 stalls by day’s end—Mr. Samphanh’s campaign to shut down the market was on everyone’s mind, multiple vendors said.
The police were forced to retreat when the vendors simply entered through a backdoor and emerged again en masse, shouting at the officers until they left at about 8:30 a.m., according to deputy provincial governor Phay Bunnak.
“We wanted to shut down the Kang Keng market because it is located on a small area and sometimes affects public order for people traveling on the road,” Mr. Bunnak said, explaining that the market’s prime location had encouraged enterprising traders to set up stalls around the 720-square-meter building, some of them on the shoulder of the highway.
He said his subordinates informed the vendors of the eviction plans two months ago.
Mr. Bunnak also said that 88 of the vendors thumbprinted a petition requesting that the market be shut down and sent it to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The deputy governor then contradicted himself: “We didn’t want to remove those people from the Kang Keng market, but they wanted the authorities to shut it down, saying they would go to the other market [Smach Deng],” he said.
Y Kim, a 32-year-old pork purveyor, said Mr. Bunnak was being dishonest. She and fellow Kang Keng vendors did thumbprint a petition to the prime minister, she said, but only after the provincial government told them their eviction was only a matter of time.
“I don’t have a stall or customers at Smach Deng,” Ms. Kim said.
“We did not give our thumbprints to ask authorities to shut down the market…. We gave our thumbprints to ask Samdech Hun Sen to intervene and offer us free stalls” at Smach Deng, on the assumption that their eviction was inevitable, she said.
Confronted with Ms. Kim’s and similar claims, Mr. Bunnak backtracked.
“I don’t know about the thumbprints. I simply received a letter from Samdech Techo Hun Sen, and he authorized provincial authorities to remove those vendors,” he said, adding that he would take up the matter with the governor, Yun Min.
Mr. Min said Thursday’s events were a mystery to him. He said Mr. Sampanh came to him late last year asking him to shut down Kang Keng.
“I told him to let me think about it,” he said.
“We can’t force the vendors to move to Smach Deng market. It’s up to them.”
Mr. Sokhon, the owner of Kang Keng, said Mr. Sampanh was indefatigable in his efforts to reclaim the highway hot spot for himself.
“The Smach Deng owner…filed complaints many times with local authorities—from the commune to the district to the provincial level—in an attempt to shut down my market,” he said.
“District and provincial authorities tried to shut down the Kang Keng market four times…but the vendors did not agree to leave.”