The Ministry of Public Works has asked people living within 30 meters of Phnom Penh’s railroad tracks to move so that renovation work can begin, but residents along the route said there is nowhere for them to go.
Thousands living in squatter communities and permanent homes on the red soil along about 10 km of tracks in Phnom Penh could be affected by the order.
A Nov 17 announcement from the Phnom Penh Municipality said the move must occur because the Ministry of Public Works is preparing to renovate the railroad and wants to prevent any train accidents. The renovation is part of a plan for a trans-Asian railway line from Singapore to China.
Some villagers living along the railroad in Tuol Kok district said Sunday they are willing to move, but asked for some financial compensation or housing in exchange.
“We respect the need of the government to promote development and we would like to see improvements, but we just ask the authorities to have pity on us who are poor,” said 54-year-old Yeng Chow.
The father of nine said he cannot move 30 meters back from the tracks because that would put him inside the campus of the Institute of Technology, which sits just behind his wooden home in Tuol Kok.
Municipal officials and representatives from the Ministry of Public Works said Monday they did not know whether those asked to move would be given compensation.
Chea Sophara, first deputy governor of Phnom Penh Municipality, said Monday that he will not use force to move any of the villagers living along the railways.
But he expressed frustration with what he described as a high number of people living along the tracks illegally. A recent public announcement on television was aired to discourage more people from moving to the area, Chea Sophara said.
While some of the villages in the Tuol Kok area are basically large squatter communities, some residents said Sunday that they had purchased the land they and their families now live on.
“We sold our farm land to buy this house here. Right now, the price of farm land has increased and is more expensive. So we cannot afford to move back,” said Chan Khon, standing outside his two-room wooden home. In the front of his house, the 31-year-old businessman has built a restaurant to help support his family of three children.
“If we go to the countryside, we will have no land to farm and live on,” Chan Khon said.
Other villagers wondered if some sort of compromise could be reached so they would only have to move about 10 meters and could thus continue their livelihoods on available land.
“My children are studying here and some of them are to take exams this year, so how could we move out?” asked 65-year-old Lean Phann. He and his seven children have lived in a two-room wooden home along the railway for the past several years, Lean Phann said.
But 30 meters is the minimum needed to ensure public safety and allow the expansion of the country’s railroads, according to railway officials.
“We want to have respect for basic train standards and avoid any possibility for accidents or casualties,” said Pich Kim Sreang, director-general of the Royal Cambodian Railways.
“I am worried because our train and its tracks are old and it can only run about 30 km per hour,” Pich Kim Sreang said.
When the new railroad is put in and the train speed increases, people living on the tracks will be in danger from possible rail accidents, he added.
The rail project is part of an ambitious plan for a 5,500-km, trans-Asian railway line. The railway is scheduled to run through Cambodia from the Thai border town of Poipet to Phnom Penh and through Kratie province to Vietnam, Pich Kim Sreang said.
In Cambodia, a second railway may need to be built and the present track renovated, Pich Kim Sreang said. Preparatory work has already begun on a proposed second set of tracks which would be laid with the assistance of the Asian Development Bank, Pich Kim Sreang said.
The eight-country railway is scheduled to run from Singapore, through Malaysia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam to Kunming in the Yunnan province of southwestern China with links through Burma and Cambodia.
Malaysia is spearheading the regional project. In September, the Malaysian transport minister said the trans-Asian rail project would continue despite his country’s recent economic woes.
Consultants suspended work on the Cambodian link in the network in July 1997 after fighting broke out between government factions.