Apr 01 2012
A few weeks ago, I described a short walk on the north riverside of Siem Reap, and attempted to paint a picture of a lively slice of of the town, one that you won’t see around Pub Street or wandering through the temples. It’s a part of ordinary, everyday Cambodia, full of bustle and barking, gossipy roadside haircuts, the heave-ho of negotiations over prices for food and materials, and the smells of dinners being cooked. Here was the sound of kids playing up and down the road, women gathered and laughing, of weddings being celebrated (usually, it must be said, to the horror of expats), of music, and the clatter of motorbike repairs. It was real life, in all its mess and beauty.
Last Monday many of the people who make up that lively scene received their marching orders, and were given a week to pack up their things, walls and all, and leave. They went about the task quietly, and the only real sounds came from the bang of hammers, and the scrawch of rusted nails being hauled out of old planks of wood. An air of resignation prevailed. There was no chat and laughter, but no crying either. Some have been compensated and given an alternative site on which to relocate, though not all. That some are happy about the move and its conditions, there is no question. But there had been protest the day before I went to have a look, and the police and army were present for the rest of the week to keep a lid on things.
The principal reason for the eviction is that the river is going to be widened, and the riverside developed, which seems a bright idea, especially in view of the devastating floods that hit Siem Reap last year, and stayed for six long weeks. Others point to the amount of litter constantly ejected from the stilt-houses that line the riverside, polluting the river, and creating an unsightly mess in downtown Siem Reap, hence the net drawn across the river to trap it all, which was never going to be an adequate long-term solution.
It’s true too that in any country, you can’t expect people to continue living such a precarious existence, in darkened, dishevelled huts perched on scrawny stilts over the edge of an unpredictable river. The fact that these structures survived the merciless hammering of the floods is a testament to the capacity and know-how of their builders; but they couldn’t survive the smooth stroke of a supposedly benign administrator’s pen. They would have had to move one day, that was inevitable. Questions remain, however, about the justifications, the timing and also the manner in which the eviction was conducted.
With regard to the justifications given for the eviction, it seems questionable whether any widening would be sufficient to prevent the incredible scale of flooding that we saw last year, and in 2010. I’m not sure what’s happened to the plan to divert part of the Siem Reap River to Roulos, which seems a more effective solution (to my admittedly non-expert mind).
Moreover, there are questions about the need to evict entire communities in such a manner, when the authorities have failed to dredge the river as promised, a significant factor in the flooding last year, and they’ve certainly had much more than a week to do so. I wonder too about the littering, and the extent to which any attempt was made to educate people about waste disposal, or an alternative solution offered.
While the residents have long known that they would have to move, the sudden order to do so, with a deadline of a week, seems harsh. Questions remain about the compensation that has been awarded to the riverside residents. It would seem there are differences in the amounts of compensation paid, and the Vietnamese community in particular appears to have received almost nothing. There are also some who may have received compensation they did not deserve, having set up camp on the riverside as soon as they heard a census was being made for removal purposes.
There are questions too about the site chosen for this relocation of almost 1,000 families. It’s on a flood plain, five kilometres from Siem Reap. That may not seem much to some people, but when you’re earning $3 a day that’s a petrol bill that quickly becomes unsustainable. For others, building up a business again will be difficult and, for many who relied on passing trade, impossible. The new development has government built stand-alone brick toilets, of the kind I’ve seen littered around parts of the countryside, filthy and unused. The site is next to a sewage processing plant.
I guess the questions in relation to all of this can be distilled into one basic one: is the eviction for the benefit of the people that live here or for the benefit of tourists? Sadly though, little in Cambodia is done for the benefit of Cambodians (or the Vietnamese communities that live here), unless they happen to be members of the elite.
One of the children’s drop-in shelters in Siem Reap is trying to raise funds so that they can set extend micro-loans to some of the families affected in order to help them deal with the move, as some of the children who are registered come from families affected by the relocation. I’m familiar with the organisation (disclosure: I stepped in to help out briefly three years ago while the director was sick), and they are one of the few with their heart and their head in the right place. If you’d like to help, Anjali House has a donation page on Virgin Giving.
In relation to the walk it is, of course, still doable and it will still give you a wonderful slice of Cambodian life to appreciate and take home with you. It’ll be a bit quieter though. And oddly enough, removal of the houses has revealed that there are not so many trees after all, and that much of the cool and shelter came from the presence of the close-knit homes that these families lived in.
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