Tenants of White Building in Dark on Demolition

A sense of panic is growing inside Phnom Penh’s iconic White Building, with residents unsure of their fate after Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong said on Tuesday that the iconic apartment block was condemned and would be torn down.

Most residents spoken to Wednesday say they have received no official notice of eviction, or even of the inspections that reportedly found the building to be unsafe, despite City Hall saying it had made residents fully aware of the situation.

Nhem Sovann, chief of Tonle Bassac commune’s village 2, which covers the southern end of the building, said he had not been consulted over any inspections or pending eviction.

Mr. Sovann, a resident since 1981, said the last time he had seen officials inspect the building was about 8 years ago, when fire swept through parts of the apartment block.

“I didn’t hear anyone talking about the condition of the building since that time,” he said. “We have not heard anything about anyone coming to inspect. We only heard about this through the press.”

City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche again Wednesday said “City Hall has informed the people” of the building’s status. But he declined to discuss the inspections.

Mol Narin, deputy director of the municipal land management department, which Mr. Dimanche said conducted the inspections, said he could not remember when the assessment was carried out or what it had found.

“There was an inspection in the past, but I can’t remember clearly,” he said.

Inside the building, a group of artists and social workers held a meeting Wednesday to discuss Mr. Socheatvong’s claims the block—home to some 600 families—is too dangerous to be lived in.

With a lack of information regarding inspections, evictions and relocations, the group plans to bring the residents onto the building’s rooftop on Saturday to discuss a plan of action.

Despite its state of disrepair after decades of neglect, the White Building remains a symbol of Cambodia’s much-celebrated 1960s and is among Phnom Penh’s most iconic landmarks.

Anne Lemaistre, the country director of Unesco, which works to preserve culture and tradition, said that her recent discussions with Phnom Penh City Hall officials had been about preservation, rather than demolition.

“I cannot hide it is a complex dossier considering the present state of the building but I have been informed of several astute plans proposed by the Municipality itself to preserve the building while ensuring the owners’ property rights,” she said by email.

Ms. Lemaistre provided no further details of those plans. But she said the White Building remains a testimony to the New Khmer Architecture style headed by Vann Molyvann, who also designed Olympic Stadium and remains the country’s most celebrated architect.

“Every time a building belonging to this creative period is destroyed, we are erasing part of the Cambodian genius and memory,” she said.

(Additional reporting by Matt Blomberg)

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