Sordid Tales of Evictions, Development Laid Bare in Study

In the two years after Phnom Penh’s iconic White Building was condemned, in September 2014, the hundreds of residents and small business owners occupying the low-income housing block received little information of the site’s fate.

But when an $80 million, four-year development plan was announced this September, the government displayed an unprecedented level of communication with the future evictees, according to a study released on Tuesday by housing rights group Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT).

cam photo white building KHMER
Residents walk through the halls of the White Building in Phnom Penh in November. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

White Building residents were swiftly informed of the five floors that would be devoted to their modern accommodation in the 21-story replacement. They were told of the temporary housing to be located behind the Royal Phnom Penh Hospital. A public meeting was held between residents, the Ministry of Land Management and the Japanese development company. Earlier this month, ministry officials went door-to-door measuring properties, organizing paperwork and promising land titles in the near future.

At other eviction sites across the capital dating back to 1990, however, this has not been the case, the STT study says.

Surveyors visited 77 Phnom Penh sites to assess their development and current use and attempted to speak with one affected community member at each; 46 people participated. Among those, 57 percent said they had been informed of development plans.

However, even “when residents are pre-warned of eviction and the planned usage of the site, there tends to be very little or no information publicly shared beyond such notifications,” the report says.

Nearly half the respondents did not know what had since been built on the land they had lived near or on, and almost a third did not know who was responsible for the developments, it says.

Even with detailed plans, evictees have been let down. Ten new residential buildings promised to the Borei Keila community a decade ago resulted in only eight, with the development company in June claiming bankruptcy and hundreds ending up homeless.

Purportedly, “the reason that they evict the communities from their land or their houses is because of development and for the Phnom Penh environment,” Sao Kosal, STT’s technical program manager, said on the sidelines of the report’s launch in Phnom Penh on Tuesday.

“But the reality is not that. The reality is different,” he said. “They use the word ‘development’ just to cheat the community, and the community did not get any benefit from the development plans.”

When evictees attempted to launch complaints, there was no single government body to be held accountable, and the courts repeatedly failed them, the study says. Evictees also reported a decrease in quality of life, from a lack of access to water and schools to a loss of income from relocation.

What was more, the promise the projects offered of growth through modernization was largely unrealized, the study found, with 65 percent of the new developments remaining unfinished. Some of them were never even begun.

City Hall spokesman Met Measpheakdey urged patience.

“The private sector has developed based on their plans. We can’t say that to develop infrastructure we must immediately see results,” he said.

“We have complied with the policy of the government for development and cooperated with private partners,” he added, declining further comment.

Land Management Ministry spokesman Seng Lot could not be reached for comment.

The city’s difficult history with development has left even the community at the White Building skeptical of restoration plans, despite the open dialogue with its development company, Arakawa, and the Land Management Ministry. According to village representatives, 90 percent of families plan to sell their property rather than wait for new accommodation to be completed.

Meas Sreymom, 48, who is facing eviction because of a railway project in Tuol Kok district’s Boeng Kak II commune, said such cynicism was well-deserved. “The government has developed on the tears of people,” she said.

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