pursat province – Teams of young men were hard at work Tuesday, slowly clearing away the heaps of charred rubble that was until recently Pursat town’s main market.
The town’s Phsar Thmei—built in the 1990s—burned almost completely to the ground in a 16-hour blaze that began the evening of April 16, the cause of which remains unknown.
Ringing the market grounds, a handful of vendors still tried to ply their wares on Tuesday, but business is bad and many lost thousands of dollars in the flames.
“This fire has made us poor—not only us, but our children and [in the future] our grandchildren,” said 25-year-old kitchenware vendor Chan Thy.
Half-burned shoes and clothing littered the outskirts of the market’s remains, evidence of the more than 700 stalls that were destroyed.
The heat of the blaze was so intense that it fused broken glass into molten globules flecked with charcoal. Two weeks later, smoke still spewed from isolated piles of smoldering bricks.
Chan Ty, who said she lost $10,000, is one of the luckier ones. Though her entire inventory went up in smoke, she secured a space on the street to sell her hastily acquired replacement kitchenware.
Following the blaze, “a lot of sellers have no space,” said vendor Kim Ratha, adding that only about 20 percent of the hundreds of sellers had been able to set up new stalls around the site of the fire.
The crush of vendors has led to tensions between sellers as they jockey for what little room can be found on the street, said vegetable seller Hoern Yen, 35.
The crush of sellers and a reduction in the number of buyers coming to the market area has meant a 50 percent drop in her sales, she went on.
“There have been some arguments between vendors over space—sometimes even fighting,” she added.
In the aftermath of the fire, two security guards were arrested.
Pen Sarath, deputy prosecutor at the provincial court, said the two men have been charged with damaging public and private property.
The men are responsible for the fire because they were security chiefs at the market who “took fees from vendors to guard their goods,” and therefore should have ensured that the blaze did not occur, Pen Sarath explained.
Despite the charges against the men, it has not been determined whether the market fire was arson or a tragic accident, he added.
On April 20, over 100 vendors protested outside the National Assembly and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s residence in Phnom Penh demanding compensation for their losses.
Provincial Governor Chhay Sareth said Wednesday that Hun Sen has promised that a new market roof would be provided, at an estimated cost of around $200,000.
Provincial authorities will soon begin taking bids from private contractors for the construction of a replacement market, he said.
Provincial Police Chief Hem Vuthea said that until the new market opens, police will not move vendors from the streets around the market.
“They are victims,” he said.
Sun Kim Heng, director of Pursat Thmei Investment, which managed the market site, said she still has nearly 10 years left on her contract with the province and will negotiate to ensure that this agreement carries over to any new market built on the site.
Construction of the original market began in 1991, with vendors moving in three years later, she said. Her company took control of the market in 1996 after signing a 20-year agreement with the provincial government.
Vendors said they are dissatisfied with the temporary solution offered them by authorities, which is to move to an open field outside the provincial capital. Vendors said that if they set up a makeshift market there, they won’t have any customers.
Kitchenware vendor Chan Ty said she doesn’t want a once-off compensation payment, she wants to move back into the market once it is rebuilt.
“The solution is not compensation. It’s to let vendors sell their goods at the old market [site] as soon as possible.”
(Additional reporting by Kay Kimsong)