People overflow from the building’s crumbling facade: A large group of men play chess at folding tables, a woman hands a package of neatly-pressed laundry back to its owner and children yell at one another on the open-air staircases.
Across a narrow dirt path, busy with motorbikes and food vendors, a corrugated steel fence has been erected, confining life to a few meters in front of the long, decrepit apartment complex in Chamkar Mon district’s Tonle Bassac commune.
Less than a month ago, there was no iron fence, and the inhabitants of this beleaguered complex spilled onto a rare expanse of patchy grass beyond it, where people played football and relaxed.
Unlike its neighbor, Hun Sen park, the grass on this field was not off-limits to locals.
Today, people will again gather on the field—but this time behind the iron fence—as officials celebrate the groundbreaking of a new government building.
Residents in the nearby complex, however, said there was little cause for celebration and worry that their homes will be next to go.
“People here are not happy at all about this construction, but we don’t know what to do about it,” said Khun Sochea, 50, as he sat in front of the complex on Tuesday carving delicate flowers into an ornate wooden door.
“We have the complaint, but we don’t know where to file it,” he said.
What was once a public field is now the new home of the Ministry of National Assembly and Senate Relations and Inspection. The building was described by Minister Men Sam An as her million-dollar “gift” from Prime Minister Hun Sen.
But according to Huot Hak, the ministry’s director of personnel and administration, a company called New Hope will be the donor, who will be repaid in kind. He said earlier this month that New Hope has agreed to pay for the cost of building and equipping the ministry in exchange for half of what was once public space.
Despite claims that a proper bidding process took place, New Hope and government officials have declined to share any details on the land-swap deal, and New Hope has said it will not disclose its plans for the rest of the site.
Residents said Tuesday they heard the space would soon be occupied by a gas station.
Though difficult to imagine due to the years of neglect, the apartment complex and garden are the remains of a once celebrated state-sponsored project by architect Vann Molyvann to provide low-cost apartments to civil servants, teachers and others living on an average income in the early 1960s.
Vann Molyvann, renowned for designing such landmarks as Phnom Penh’s Independence Monument and Chaktomuk Hall, said Tuesday that the project incorporated expansive public parks to bring air into the city and ease the stress of living in an urban area.
Occupied by a teeming squatter village and brothels until 2001, when a fire razed the area, the site of the new ministry building is the last of these urban parks—another is now the parking lot of the nearby Phnom Penh Center office blocks.
Inhabitants of the housing complex have voiced concerns about the loss of the space, which still served the function first considered by Vann Molyvann more than 40 years ago.
“This construction will block the air from us, it is too narrow,” said resident Rin Sareth, looking at the fence only a few meters away, while 26-year-old Huy Chanthuon bemoaned the loss of his football pitch.
“We used to play here every day,” he said. “We have no place for exercise and entertainment.”
Others worried that their own building would be the next to go.
“Residents here think that the government will move us next,” said Sman Phally, 41. “We are afraid.”
Despite their obvious disappointment over losing the garden, most people seemed resigned to the fact that there was nothing they could do about it.
“The government is selling all things except the pagodas and Royal Palace,” Rin Sareth said.