A long-simmering dispute over a Vietnamese shanty town within a pagoda compound in southern Phnom Penh has grown more intense in recent days, with both sides accusing the other of provoking violence.
Senators toured the Wat Chak Angre Leu compound last week, vowing to get to the bottom of the dispute. A student group has said it will stage a protest march this morning to urge the government to take action to force the Vietnamese residents to leave the Meanchey district pagoda.
Keo Bun, the wat’s chief monk, has vowed to set himself on fire if the dispute is not resolved soon, according to Rasmei Kampuchea (Light of Cambodia) newspaper. The monks say they have waited too long for a resolution.
The monks say the squatters must go. The Vietnamese say they want to go but have no place to go to. At least twice this month, arguments have led to violence, with both sides reporting minor injuries .
Last week, the tension was palpable at the wat. Near the freshly painted temple, several dozen pagoda boys and men stood gazing across a bare patch of dirt toward a group of Vietnamese squatters.
The squatters, clustered at the edge of their shanty settlement on the temple grounds, grew nervous at the stares. “They are afraid the men will come and beat them when you go,’’ one Vietnamese woman told reporters.
The squatters melted away, only to gather again inside the settlement, where they could not so easily be seen. “We are really scared,’’ said an older woman named Sokny. “We need a little more time to make arrangements, but we want to move.’’
Vietnamese squatters moved into the deserted temple compound in the early 1980s, after Vietnamese forces took over the nearly empty city. Over the years, the settlement has grown to about 50 houses sheltering as many as 500 people.
For some time, the two communities coexisted more or less peacefully. But in the past two years, tensions have been growing, residents of the wat said. The most serious recent disturbance broke out March 12 as the monks were cleaning the temple compound in preparation for a ceremony scheduled for April 4.
The monks maintain a large group of Vietnamese attacked monks and pagoda boys with sticks, stones, and chairs, slightly injuring one monk and two boys.
The Vietnamese say the trouble began when a monk ordered a squatter named Ngo Van Hau to move his motorbike. When he didn’t do so promptly, they say, the monk hit him twice with a stick. Ngo Van Hau’s mother began to berate the monk, and the fight escalated, they say. A similar fracas erupted March 19.
The monks complain that trouble arises on the compound when the immigrants drink and become argumentative. The squatters agree that some Vietnamese do drink on the compound, but said they fight only among themselves.
Sum Chi, first vice president of the Overseas Vietnamese Association in Phnom Penh, said that during the Khmer Rouge regime, many Vietnamese whose families had lived in Cambodia for generations fled to Vietnam to avoid being killed. When they returned after the Vietnamese took control, they found their homes destroyed. He said they obtained permission to settle along the river and on the temple grounds, which were deserted at the time.
The monks say that in 1993 the government ordered the immigrants to vacate the temple grounds but they complain the order was never enforced. Two court orders to vacate—in March and June of last year—were also ignored, the monks say.
The Vietnamese claim the court has ruled at least once in their favor, and they are hopeful it will do so again in July, when another ruling is expected.
Sum Chi said the Overseas Vietnamese Association, which has little money of its own, is hoping other aid organizations will help raise money to buy an 8-hectare piece of land in Prek Pra commune, in Meanchey district. The ultimate goal is to build housing on that site, at a cost of about $2,000 per family, Sum Chi said. He said his organization expects to eventually relocate 1,230 Vietnamese families living at four other locations around the city, in addition to the more than 500 people at Wat Chak Angre Leu.
An entourage of about 20 people, including several senators, toured the temple Thursday morning. “It is our duty to investigate what happened here,’’ said Kem Sokha (Fun), chairman of the Senate’s human rights committee. Senator Ung Ty (CPP), deputy chairman, said, “We have asked questions of both sides.’’
Um Sam An, deputy secretary general of the Students Movement for Democracy, said there will be a march at 7:30 am today from the wat to the city’s municipal headquarters, the Council of Ministers and municipal court.
At the Vietnamese Embassy, press officer Chu Dong Loc said last week the squatters have not contacted the embassy about the situation. “Until now, we have not gotten involved,’’ he said. He declined to speculate on whether diplomats might become involved in the future. “It depends on what happens,’’ he said.
Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara and Em Sokleang, deputy police chief in the Meanchey district, both said early last week that they had been unaware of the dispute but will investigate.
Kea Savoeun, commune chief of Chak Angre Leu, said officials are working with representatives of the Vietnamese Association to resolve the issue peacefully.
Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of the Interior, said the government’s position is simple. “The pagoda must be cleared. We have been in contact with some human rights organizations. Those people who are living there illegally must leave.’’
Asked how the government plans to accomplish this, he said only, “We have to implement some measures. If we can dismantle the Khmer Rouge legally and mostly peacefully, clearing a temple compound should not be too hard.’’
(Additional reporting by Dinh Thi Van)