Prime Minister Hun Sen has ordered most of the families squatting on state land reserved for a free-trade zone in Sihanoukville to stay put because relocating as planned will create unnecessary hardship for them.
Hun Sen said Monday that only 103 families living on the land must be relocated; the rest of the squatters—nearly 2,400 families—can remain, according to a report broadcast Tuesday on TVK News.
“We will not move your houses. Please keep staying there,” Hun Sen said at the opening ceremony for a new addition to Sokimex’s oil port in the seaside town. He also said the Sihanoukville Port Authority will give relocated families a piece of land and a house near the port area.
Hun Sen’s announcement forces an abrupt change of direction for the port authority, which had been developing a new seashore town in Math Peam, 15 km east of the port, to accommodate the squatter families now living on state property behind the port. The $3.5 million project, to be financed largely by the port authority, was to include roads, houses, gardens and a market.
In the early 1990s, the port authority reserved more than 90 hectares of state land to develop a tax-free import and export zone that officials hope will bring more labor-intensive manufacturing to the area and encourage trade. Meanwhile, large numbers of families moved onto the land.
Relocating the squatters has been an obstacle to the trade zone development ever since. After studying two possible relocation sites, the port recently proposed the Math Peam town development plan.
“The plan is canceled. There will be no more Math Peam project,” said Lou Kim Chhun, the port’s director-general.
But he said the port and the municipality will proceed with the free-trade zone project. “We will try our best to develop the export processing zone,” he said.
The port authority and Sihanoukville municipality are planning to develop the zone in two phases. The first phase includes 50 hectares of the land adjacent to the port and later with a 40-hectare expansion. Local officials said the majority of the squatters live on land that falls into the second phase of the trade zone project. The 103 families to be moved are scattered across the 50 hectares of land reserved for the first phase.
“If we can succeed with the first phase, then we can negotiate and convince people [the majority of squatters] to move out for the future development,” Lou Kim Chhun said.
Some officials said Hun Sen’s decision might hurt economic development in the area, but squatters welcomed the news.
Am Sokha, a legal investigator with Legal Aid of Cambodia, which has been helping the squatter families, talked to the families on Tuesday about the prime minister’s announcement.
“They were very happy to hear Hun Sen’s decision,” Am Sokha said.
“People [who are to be relocated] are still worried about where and when they will be moved, but at least they said it would be all right if they can get the government’s help to resettle.”