On Tonle Sap, Vietnamese Families Face Mass Eviction

The Kompong Chhnang provincial government is in the process of evicting about 1,000 mostly Vietnamese families who live in the floating villages on the Tonle Sap river near the provincial capital, moving them up the river as part of a five-year plan to beautify the riverfront.

Authorities last week began informing residents of the floating villages of their impending relocation, according to deputy provincial governor Sun Sovannarith, who is in charge of the eviction.

Mr. Sovannarith said moving the families to a new site 3 km up the river was necessary to improve Kompong Chhnang’s image and bolster its tiny tourism sector.

“We have a five-year master plan for 2015 to 2019 to develop Kompong Chhnang City, so we are doing the work according to our master plan,” he said.

“The provincial governor has announced that between October 15 and 25, the Khmer, Cham and Vietnamese people living in a total of 1,486 houses will move,” he said. “So far, about 90 percent have agreed to move.”

Mr. Sovannarith said authorities had registered 996 families living in the villages.

“The reasons we need them to move is because this place is the face of Kompong Chhnang province and especially of Kompong Chhnang City,” he said. “In past times, people always criticized the authorities for the lack of development, the untidiness and the lack of atmosphere.”

“So, for this five-year master plan, we will be working hard to prepare the environment in that area to make it better. We will make a park along the riverside for the people to do exercises and look at the views,” he added.

Mr. Sovannarith said that the 1,486 floating houses could remain in their new location for another two years while provincial authorities scouted out land for them to resettle on permanently.

However, Nguyen Yon Mas, a representative of what he said was about 800 to 900 ethnic Vietnamese people living in the villages, said most of the families had lived there since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979—and wanted to stay.

Mr. Mas said that all but about 200 Vietnamese families had already floated to the new location.

“They are forcing us to move far away. It will seriously affect the poor families’ livelihoods. They are pushing us about 5 km from the old place,” he said.

Mr. Mas said some villagers already had land on the shore and could simply live there, but that those with no land were concerned that they were being shunted out of sight by authorities offering only vague promises of permanent resettlement.

“For the people who had land in the villages, it does not matter. But we are concerned about the people who have nothing. If the authorities order them to leave…where can they go?” Mr. Mas said.

As for the new temporary resettlement site, Mr. Mas said the location was less than ideal for a floating village, both for safety and economic reasons.

“The old location was safe, because there were a lot of trees surrounding it, but the new place is free [of trees]. If a big storm hits, we will face a major disaster,” he said.

“In the new location, it is difficult because there is no electricity or clean water, and it is far from the market. It will be difficult for our people to travel to sell fish.”

Toth Kimsroy, provincial coordinator for the Minority Rights Organization, said he supported the eviction in principle due to the pollution some villagers were responsible for.

“Actually, we welcome the authorities’ action, because those people poison the river and the environment with their businesses, which include charging batteries and repairing machines,” Mr. Kimsroy said.

Yet he said the provincial government should be more proactive in finding land for the villagers, explaining that he believed authorities were hoping the villagers would move on by themselves before two years was up.

Mr. Kimsroy estimated that about 80 percent of those living in the floating villages in Kompong Chhnang City were ethnic Vietnamese. Most came to Cambodia between 1979 and 1983, he said, and only some had Cambodian citizenship.

Mou Sron, 54, an ethnic Khmer man who said he had lived on the river since 1980, said he had not left yet because he was unsure how to move an elaborate pigsty he had set up.

“Recently, the authorities came to tell us to leave, but I am a Khmer national and my family has lived in this area since 1980. Why do they need for us to move?” he said. “The Vietnamese quickly agreed to move, as they have floating houses, but for my family it’s hard because I raise pigs.”

Mr. Sron said that part of his pigsty was on land for the swine to eat and sleep on, while a platform extending onto the water allowed them to defecate hygienically. Such a contraption would be hard to float, he explained.

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