Just a few weeks ago, Ngien Than Tham, 13, and his friend Hiem Kuntha, 11, were living next to 44 families on a small plot of land behind the Hotel Inter-Continental.
Now, all that remains of their homes are scorched planks, laying askew on a rectangle of blackened earth.
Their belongings were destroyed in a Jan 9 fire that started during a court-ordered eviction. Villagers threw stones at police and police beat five villagers, one resident said.
The two boys now sleep in a nearby sewer pipe, so that Hiem Kuntha can go to school, located just around the corner, and so that both can beg for money from foreigners at Martini’s, a nearby restaurant and nightclub.
Their families have been moved, temporarily, to Dangkao district, approximately 14 km, or a 45-minute ride, from the center of Phnom Penh.
The relocated families are living in donated tents, constructed with blue plastic tarpaulins and rusted metal frames, on land that costs 300 riel per family, per month in rent. But they can stay there for only three months.
Adults cannot work and children cannot get to school,
villagers say, because it is so
far outside the city. Money earned is used mostly for transportation, said Chea Srey, 37, a vegetable seller at Phsar Daum Kor.
Municipal Cabinet Chief Mann Chhoeun said the municipality and NGOs are working to find land for the displaced group. But, he said, “three months is not very much time.”
Initially the NGOs and the municipality tried to place the families in Chamkar Mon district’s Tonle Bassac commune, but the plan fell through, said Paul Rabe a land management expert with the Urban Poverty Reduction Project. He said community leaders are often opposed to letting large groups of new families move in, for reasons of space and economics.
Opposition from villagers and community leaders at the current site forced the families to promise to stay no more than three months.
Tuy Someth, national project manager for the UPRP, said he thinks the land behind the Inter-Continental will be used to build a big house, like others on the same street. Long Norin, lawyer for the owner, Khaew Sambath, said he doesn’t know for what the land will be used.
The families said they moved there in 1993. Chea Savoeun, 47, the president of the displaced community, said he and some of the others moved from Prey Veng province and settled at the site to work on nearby construction projects.
Long Norin said the contractor building the Hotel Inter-Continental had asked in 1994 that 10 families of the construction workers live at the site temporarily. He said none of those families lived at the site at the time of the eviction.
When first asked, Long Norin said that Khaew Sambath is the son of Teng Bunma, one of the richest men in Cambodia and owner of the Hotel Inter-Continental. But when questioned again later, he said he wasn’t sure whether the owner was the son of Teng Bunma or not.
When the houses were razed on Jan 9, Khaew Sambath was not present. Long Norin came with the deputy prosecutor and a back-up force of police and military police. It was the third attempt to evict the squatters.
Descriptions of what happened next vary. Residents and NGO workers present estimated of the number of police from as few as 40 too as many as 200. The force was smaller initially, but backup arrived later in the day.
They also reported that police brought with them truckloads “glue-sniffing kids,” members of local gangs. Long Norin denies this.
NGO representatives and municipal officials tried to negotiate a deal, including $200 for each family, but negotiations fell through when Long Norin’s side refused to give the families several days to move out.
“It seems they were not listening,” Tuy Someth said, referring to Long Norin and the others.
Long Norin said they tried to evict the families more than one week earlier, but had agreed to negotiate. When the families refused to leave, he said, authorities had no choice but to use force.
Tuy Someth said residents, with the help of NGO workers, had asked for 10 days to work out a solution, but that they were not allowed to meet with the owner’s representatives.
The confrontation escalated when someone began throwing stones and bottles. Residents said it came from police or gang members on adjacent buildings. Long Norin said residents started the violence.
In the ensuing chaos, residents say Long Norin and police started the fire with flaming bottles of gas. NGO workers said they were forced away from the scene and couldn’t be sure what happened.
Long Norin, however, said the residents torched their homes themselves. Several men were arrested on charges of arson, but released the next day.
Rabe said the eviction was particularly violent. “Most evictions are resolved through negotiation.”
“We lost a lot of things, tools, all commodities. Now all the structure is from the Urban Poverty Reduction Project and we borrow some small things, beds, from other people,” Chea Savoeun said.
After appealing to the municipality, parliament and the King and Queen for help, Sun Phanit, 29, community vice president, said “If they do not help us, we will go and sleep in front of the National Assembly to show them how poor we are.”
“Law is law,” Long Norin said. “It is not related to humanitarian considerations. Wrong is wrong and right is right. We are the aggrieved party. Who helps us?”