Evictions and Architecture

Vann Molyvann is the most celebrated architect in Cambodian history. He designed a number of Phnom Penh’s most iconic landmarks such as Olympic Stadium. He is also responsible for some of the major housing structures around the city.

Borei Keila is one such structure, but its residents have had to endure shocking conditions over the last couple of years. On January 3rd, 2012, hundreds of families from the Borei Keila community were forcibly—and violently—evicted from their homes without warning. Police and military personnel used tear gas and electric batons leaving some people injured while others were arrested. Over 300 families lost their homes that day (The Cambodia Daily, Jan. 4th). So why did this happen?

Phan Imex, a firm owned by well-connected businesswoman Suy Sophan, claimed to have bought the development rights to the area. They are also said to have signed a contract in 2003 pledging to build ten high-rise housing structures for more than 1,700 families. The firm ended up only building eight, which left hundreds of former residents homeless (Phnom Penh Post, Mar. 21st).

In 2014, after two years of broken promises and demonstrations, 50 families chose to accept the government’s assurance of compensatory shelters. One of the evictees said “I think that now I need a safe home to live in temporarily, because I can’t put up with living on the pile of garbage and sewage” (Phnom Penh Post, Mar. 21st). Sadly, things only got worse for the Borei Keila community. Officials began marking out plots in February and families were outraged when they learned that “each one measured only three-by-four metres—half the size of the four-by-six metre plots promised” (Phnom Penh Post, Mar. 21st).

On February 14th, tensions between the community and authorities came to a brutal climax. A small group of Borei Keila community members had occupied an unfinished apartment building to protest the inadequate replacement housing. A government security force was sent to remove them, leaving 19 people injured and two women in the hospital. Pich Limkhuon, a community representative, said that “the two badly injured women included Hath Sokchenda, 35, who is seven months pregnant and was kicked by authorities and shocked with an electric baton. Chhai Kimhorn, 35, was also kicked by police and lost consciousness” (The Cambodia Daily, Feb. 17th).

Sam Sovann is the governor of the Prampi Makara district, whose security guards evicted the villagers along with city riot police. He vehemently disputed Mr. Limkhuon’s portrayal of the clash and insisted that the police were provoked. “We did nothing like what they accused us of. After authorities forced them to leave, a group of people incited Borei Keila people to throw rocks at our authorities, then authorities responded.” Mr. Sovann denied that the security force had anything to do with the 19 wounded people at the scene. He was then asked how the evictees had been injured. His response: “I don’t know” (The Cambodia Daily, Feb. 17th).

If you would like to see what has become of Borei Keila, Luc Forsyth, a photojournalist, has put together a striking collection of pictures he took during a visit to the site. Here is the link: http://lucforsyth.com/evicted/

The White Building is another example of Vann Molyvann’s work. The historic structure was built as a low-cost housing project in 1963 and is now home to more than 600 families. But it is now under threat of being demolished and its tenants are in danger of being evicted.

On Tuesday, September 2nd, Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong announced that the apartment block was condemned and would be torn down. Apparently, government officials inspected the building and deemed it unsafe to live in. On Wednesday, City Hall spokesman, Long Dimanche, said that they had informed the residents on the situation but he declined to elaborate on any of the details of the inspection. There was further mystery when Mol Narin, Deputy Director of the Municipal Land Management Department, who supposedly had conducted the inspections, said “there was an inspection in the past, but I can’t remember clearly” (The Cambodia Daily, Sept. 4th).

Naturally, this sparked an immediate response from disgruntled tenants and supporting NGOs who are pushing for renovations rather than demolition of the famous site. On Thursday, a group of nine civil-society organizations released a statement demanding evidence of the inspection as well as for residents to be included in discussions on the building’s future. Licadho director Naly Pilorge said, “the government has an obligation to consult with both residents and civil society on development of its city” (The Cambodia Daily, Sept. 5th).

On that same day, City Hall essentially U-turned on its resolve to demolish the White Building having considered the rapidly growing public campaign for renovations. Mr. Dimanche explained, “the objective of the city governor is not to [demolish the building]…[he] merely explained that OCIC has a satellite project at Chroy Changva [district] where there are proper homes for living in. All the apartments [in the White Building] are corrupted and could collapse” (The Cambodia Daily, Sept. 5th). Despite these claims, the government has yet to provide any details of their investigation, leaving many to ponder its authenticity.

Admittedly, after decades of neglect, the White Building is extraordinarily dirty. But has the government considered retaining its potential as low-cost social housing? The idea of a city development plan that includes low cost housing schemes in the city, similar to those that can be found around Europe (a form of less isolated Habitation à Loyer Modéré, or HLM, found in France and Switzerland for example), integrating questions of social welfare into urban development, seem uncomfortably far from the Municipality’s concerns.

Of course, I cannot speak to the White Building’s structural stability, as I am not an expert, nor pretend to be one. Hopefully, an independent panel of engineers will be permitted to make that assessment themselves and present a report to the public. Nevertheless, this building remains a symbol of Phnom Penh’s architectural resurgence in the 1960s and is still considered one of the city’s most iconic landmarks. Anne Lemaistre, the country director of UNESCO, which works to preserve culture and tradition, believes that “every time a building belonging to this creative period is destroyed, we are erasing part of the Cambodian genius and memory” (The Cambodia Daily, Sept. 4th).

Though the deterioration of Cambodia’s architectural heritage should not be dismissed lightly, our attention should be focused on the people living in those places. If hundreds of families from Borei Keila are still waiting for adequate compensation after losing their homes, should the residents of the White Building expect similar treatment if their apartment block is torn down?