With elaborately framed windows, carefully polished wooden floors and a view of the new National Assembly building, 64-year-old Lim Likean built the perfect house in which to spend his retirement.
But instead he has found himself fighting for the very future of his home, which cost him more than $10,000 to build and sits on land he has owned since 1997. He bought the 360-square-meter plot for $2,000 from a previous occupant, who had been living on the site since 1983.
Now, Lim Likean and 146 other families living in Tonle Bassac commune’s Group 78 have been told to make way for a new road leading to a new bridge, which is being built over the Bassac river to nearby Koh Pich island.
Despite Group 78 residents having legal rights to their land—some claims date back to the early 1980s—they have all been told by Phnom Penh city authorities that they must vacate their homes.
In return for leaving their city-center neighborhood, the residents have been offered 5-by-12-meter plots in a remote part of Dangkao district 20 km away. Municipal authorities say they will also pay each family between $500 and $600 compensation, amounting to around $87,000 in total.
Sung Bonna of Bonna Realty group in Phnom Penh said the total value of Group 78’s land, despite measuring only around one hectare in size, is in the region of $10 million.
When the Sour Srun company carried out the mass removal of hundreds of families from nearby Village 14 in June, Group 78 villagers said they lost a sizeable chunk of their land but were promised they would be spared eviction.
Just weeks later, however, they received the first of three eviction notices from municipal authorities. The most recent, dated Aug 28, appealed to the residents “[to] demolish your anarchic buildings.”
Some families took the municipality’s offer and moved out. But the remaining 146 families—numbering around 1,000 people—are in no mood to go quietly.
Nuon Sokchea, an attorney at the Cambodian Legal Education Center, who is representing Group 78 residents, believes they have strong legal grounds to fight the eviction notice.
“We have a lot of evidence to support their ownership claim for the land,” she said
“They can clearly show they have lived in the area peacefully for more than five years prior to the introduction of the 2001 land law, she said.
The municipal land management department also recognized their occupancy of the land as far back as 1992, said Nuon Sokchea, noting that if the government requires that the land be bought for public use, the law requires that “fair and just” compensation be paid.
“Fair compensation is the market value of the land,” she added.
Various officials who have lobbied the residents to pack up and leave have alternatively said that they are being pushed out of their homes for the public good, to beautify the city or that the land now belongs to a private owner.
Phnom Penh Municipal Governor Kep Chuktema could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Deputy Governor Mann Chhoeun referred questions on the Group 78 case to Deputy Governor Pa Socheatvong, who said he was too busy to answer questions.
According to Touch Samnang, project manager for Oversea Cambodia Investment Corp, who leased nearby Koh Pich island for $50 million in 2006, his company knows nothing about the eviction of Group 78 residents.
“City Hall deals with those people,” he said.
Lim Likean says he is committed to solving the issue through the correct channels.
“We don’t want to be against City Hall, but they are evicting us as though we were illegal,” he said.
“If they need this land for something like a road, then they must compensate us correctly,” Lim Likean said. “What they are offering will leave us with nothing.”
“The laws on these matters are clear and well-written,” he said, shaking his head, “but their implementation is not so good.”
A yellow sign hangs over Sim Nhim’s nearby shop, with the words “My land, my house, please let me shelter.”
She has lived here with her family of 12 for seven years, having bought the 114-square-meter plot from a man who had lived there since the mid-1980s.
“They say they want to move us almost into the forest,” Sim Nhim said of the Dangkao district land offered by the city.
“This is my land, and I have the papers to prove it,” she added. “We will face the authorities. We will not be intimidated.”