Fleeing bulldozers, evicted Dey Krahorm residents could be seen today lobbing chairs, mattresses, framed pictures and cooking pots over a wall into an adjoining parking lot to salvage their possessions. Others hurled rocks at police, who returned fire with tear-gas cannisters, leading to injuries to four residents, according to onlookers who observed the curtains close on one of the biggest urban redevelopment stories in the capital over the last decade.
The whack of striking hammers and thud of swinging cranes drowned out the sound of roosters to awaken residents in Phnom Penh’s Tonle Bassac neighbourhood this morning. But for residents of the slum community of Dey Krahorm, the day started around 2am, when, according to residents and housing rights workers, scores of police began cordoning off the controversial neighbourhood to clear the way for workers to demolish the last of its corrugated-metal and wooden homes.
Military, municipal and Interior Ministry police, some armed, presided over the demolition carried out by hundreds of workers hired by the company planning to develop the area, 7NG. They also prevented access to the area by journalists and rights workers.
Military Police Sao Sokha, Municipal Police Chief Touch Naruth, and Interior Ministry and government spokesmen Khieu Sopheak and Khieu Kanharith, respectively, did not respond to repeated calls for comment today.
“At 6am, they started to tear down my home,” Mao Vuthy, one of residents who had still been negotiating a compensation deal, said this morning. “The company and city officials didn’t inform us they would do this today.”
Cash compensation or a home at a relocation site 16 kilometres from the city, in the village of Damnak Trayoeng, had been offered by the private developer.
The morning demolition left Mao Vuthy, who works in the centre of Phnom Penh at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, with little choice.
“I now must go to the relocation site. The cash isn’t enough to buy another home. Moving to the relocation site will be difficult for my daily life because it is very far from my job in Phnom Penh,” he said.
Speaking to reporters this morning outside Dey Krahorm, Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Mann Chhoeun said the action was not an eviction.
“The activities of tearing down the homes at Dey Krahorm is not an eviction but just an effort to clear the area for development,” he said. “For those who want compensation, the Phnom Penh Municipality and the developer will discuss the issue tomorrow [Sunday] at the new location at Damnak Trayoeng.”
Srey Sothea, chairman of 7NG, said his company recognised 91 families who had remained at Dey Krahorm and said each would receive a home at the relocation site as well as 777,700 riel ($190).
If more families could provide land ownership documents, he would extend the same compensation to them, as well, he added.
But cash compensation was off the table, he said.
“The offer of $20,000 we promised before the relocation is now finished,” he said. “I had encouraged the Dey Krahorm residents to accept it to avoid the administrative measure like we had today, but my proposition had been rejected,” Srey Sothea said.
However, Mann Choeun said today residents were still entitled to $15,000.
“As for accusations that we are abusing people’s rights… we have announced this many times already to residents. We had prepared all administrative measures and people were asked to leave Dey Krahorm,” he said.
The municipality and 7NG announced January 13 they had a “green light” to forcibly remove the remaining residents of the embattled community, but sweetened the threat of eviction by raising cash compensation from $15,000 to $20,000 per family for those who go willingly.
Mann Chhoeun said today that while several notices of imminent eviction had been issued, the most recent on December 30, some residents remained — paving the way for legal action by authorities.
Earlier this week, some high-profile residents from Dey Krahorm, chapei masters Neth Pe and Kong Nay, accepted homes within Phnom Penh and $10,000 from 7NG. But these were exceptional offers, and the rest of the residents holding out have argued $20,000 is too little to buy a new home, while the relocation properties are too far from their livelihoods in the city.
Contacted this morning by phone, Chan Vichet, a representative of the last residents, said he was “hiding” for fear authorities would intern him to prevent him from raising a public outcry against the day’s events.
“I can see my home being demolished by a bulldozer. They consider us like animals,” Chan Vichet said.
While the city had estimated that 90 families remained in the community, Chan Vichet put the figure at closer to 150 families. Trucks belonging to 7NG shuttled them to the relocation site, he said.
Rights groups flocked to Dey Krahorm in the morning to observe the demolition of a community whose right to the land they had lobbied for years.
Without any prior notification and with compensations deals outstanding for families remaining there, around 200 police “encircled” the community in the middle of the night and were followed later in the morning by more than 300 workers with bulldozers, said Chan Saveth of the rights group Adhoc.
Yeng Virak, executive director of Community Legal Education Centre, said he had entered the Dey Krahorm complex at 4am but was forced by police to leave by 6am.
“It’s not fair and it’s illegal. People have possession rights to the land and their compensation needs to be settled before they are removed,” Yeng Virak said. “In Phnom Penh, business interests come before the rights of the people. This is another example of economic development at all costs — not equitable or sustainable development.”
David Pred, director of rights group Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia, said residents still have a civil complaint pending in an appeals court to cancel the land swap between the former community representative and 7NG that he said was patently invalid under the Land Law.
An estimated 800 to 1,400 residents lived in Dey Krahorm before old community leaders signed a contract with 7NG in 2005, giving it the 3.6-hectare property in return for building relocation houses in Damnak Trayoeng village. Land rights group have challenged the legality of the original contract and accused city and 7NG officials of using intimidation tactics to force residents to accept the compensation deals offered.
Rights advocates also condemned the relocation site, which they described as allotments resembling brick shells and far from complete.
“The municipality was clearly not prepared for relocation. There is no humanitarian relief. But they were effectively organised for the eviction,” Pred said.
Sara Colm, of the Cambodian office of Human Rights Watch, said residents delivered to Damnak Trayoeng appeared stunned.
“They’re just dumped there. There are no proper homes, no water. There was a woman there who looked like she was going into premature labour from having lifted all her stuff,” she said.
“People started erecting blue tarps with sticks to get shelter from the sun and getting water from ditches in rice fields.”
Meanwhile, at Dey Krahorm, 7NG is still deliberating on the future of its development plan.
“Our company will start construction on the new site soon, but we don’t know what we will construct,” Srey Sothea said. “We’ll let people know later.”
Additional reporting by Chhay Channyda