After the development company 7NG completed the violent eviction of more than 1,400 families from Phnom Penh’s Dey Krahorm community in 2009, it set its sights on the adjacent White Building.
The historic apartment block, which was built as a low-cost housing project under then Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1963 and is now home to more than 600 families, was the last structure separating 7NG’s prime land from Sothearos Boulevard.
“The company will discuss with City Hall about those people, too, about the possibility of relocation,” 7NG chairman Srey Sothea said at the time.
Now, five years later and with 7NG’s development plans for the area yet to materialize, residents and NGO workers at the White Building are worried that the company is again moving in on their land. A number of residents interviewed this month say that 7NG representatives have been quietly buying up apartments in the building.
“They move very quietly and buy [apartments] one by one,” said Lyna Kourn, 25, a social worker and teacher at the building.
“Sometimes it is very quiet, but at the end of 2013 and in 2014, there have been lots of negotiations. They come: price, sell, buy…. Maybe they have bought 20 apartments now, maybe more.”
“They came to offer $20,000 to my family,” said Chhuon Chan Vandy, 27, a White Building resident. “We have no contact details for them because they came very quickly and we did not accept the offer.”
Mr. Chan Vandy also said he thought 7NG had been successful in buying other apartments recently, as a number of homes that were formerly occupied were now padlocked closed.
“7NG comes and buys the apartment and then locks the door,” he said.
Inside the White Building, which became a hub for artists and civil servants as Phnom Penh was repopulated following the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, an NGO-run school is also under pressure from 7NG.
The Aziza School, which provides free education and medical services to residents of the White Building and surrounding areas, is currently negotiating with 7NG after the company purchased two rooms that the school rents.
“About three months ago, 7NG called and said we would have to move at the end of our contract,” said Pha Sothea, the general manager of the school.
Mr. Sothea said he only knew the 7NG broker he had dealt with as a woman named “Bong Ny,” and that after some discussion she had indicated that the school’s contracts would be extended after all.
7NG director Srey Chanthou denied that his company owned any apartments inside the building and said that anyone who suggested otherwise was spreading “false information.”
Mr. Chanthou said that 7NG planned to build residential blocks on the Dey Krahorm land with a “foreign partner” and the details of that development would be released next month.
“The apartment project will only be on the land we already own,” he said.
At a meeting at her offices last week, a 7NG employee named Yuth Theany explained that the company had gone into partnership with an NGO—Solidarity for the Urban Poor Federation—to help people buy land at a project site in Kandal province.
Ms Theany, a former White Building resident herself, explained how the project, for which she is the accountant, is offering interest-free mortgages for plots of land in Kandal province to residents of the White Building and other Phnom Penh slums.
“7NG wants to help poor people by providing interest-free mortgages, and that is such a rare opportunity. It’s not just rare, it’s unprecedented,” she said, adding that those who took the deal were required to repay the company just $20 per month.
“My boss’ project is helping the poor, allowing them to pay just $20 so everyone can afford it. We don’t charge for our services or for running documents.”
Ms. Theany said “a lot” of residents of the White Building had bought land at the relocation site, and that 7NG had already taken possession of 11 apartments in the complex, including two that Ms. Theany had previously owned.
She said that for the moment, 7NG security guards are living in those apartments with their families. The guards are allowed to live there rent-free and are given free water and electricity by the company.
“His Excellency the head of security is generous. He understands the difficulty of security guards,” Ms. Theany said.
She later clarified that she was referring to Srey Sothea, the chairman of 7NG.
When questioned on the motives of the Solidarity for the Urban Poor Foundation, the broker said everything had been done with the approval of the highest levels of government.
“It’s the prime minister’s initiative, according to what I have heard from my boss,” Ms. Theany said.
“When the government needs to relocate people, we need organizations to collect thumbprints and have people consent to the trade,” she said.