Displaced From Angkor: Desolate Land, Uncertain Futures Await Residents

Development of the Run Ta Ek resettlement site for Angkor residents in September 2022. (Phin Rathana/VOD)
Development of the Run Ta Ek resettlement site for Angkor residents in September 2022. (Phin Rathana/VOD)
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As night fell on Angkor Wat, the southern edge of the temple’s grand moat hummed with a quiet night of village life. 

Seng* was there mingling with his neighbors in Trapeang Ses village. Spread along a road running parallel to the Angkor Wat complex, the village is one of several residential and vendor areas marked for an upcoming demolition as part of an official campaign under the Apsara Authority and Land Ministry to clear inhabitants from the Angkor Archaeological Park.

Locals who spoke with VOD said they wouldn’t defy the government order to move. But while some found consolation in official promises that displaced villagers would be given land in a rural area outside the park in Run Ta Ek commune, none had a clear idea of how the relocation would turn out.

“I agree that our constructions should be removed, but it is too fast,” said Seng, who asked to speak under a pseudonym for fear of retribution from officials. He started crying softly as he showed reporters his home and the stacked timbers of his former shop, from which he had previously sold rice and other goods. Seng said officials had told him to take down the shop almost immediately, which “cut off our system” for earning a living.

“They’re doing it so quickly, I am stunned,” he said.

For vendors and other residents who had struggled to find income during the near-total loss of international tourism during the pandemic, the idea of starting anew is a daunting one — especially on the rugged terrain to be given to them at Run Ta Ek commune, in Banteay Srei district. 

The scope of the displacement is unclear. In some areas of the park, residents living near demolition sites believe they will be allowed to stay, even though authorities have visited to survey and measure their land.

Homes and shops near the Srah Srang reservoir in the park’s east side have already been cleared, while Trapeang Ses and other residential areas were in the middle of removal. Though the government has said Unesco concerns are the primary motivator for the campaign, the U.N. agency did not take responsibility, referring questions to Apsara.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has touted this development zone as a potential model for sustainable urbanism in Cambodia. On September 13, he said the area will soon house 6,000 resettled families.

“In the future, Run Ta Ek will not be rural anymore, it will be a developed Run Ta Ek,” he said.

For now, the land to be allotted there is a sparsely settled, 1,300-hectare stretch toured by VOD reporters about 23 km from Angkor park. Apsara manages this land, much of which is still covered in thinning forest as workers clear trees and prepare basic infrastructure.

Nearby residents collect wood from Run Ta Ek. (Phin Rathana/VOD)
Nearby residents collect wood from Run Ta Ek. (Phin Rathana/VOD)

When reporters came on September 8, a team of men were using excavators to dig a lake out of clay-rich earth. One said they’d been working for three years already, but that the feature would be ready by the end of the Pchum Ben holiday to provide fresh water to newcomers. The lake at that time looked like a quarry, the water thick and milky white with clay.

Seng and other villagers had little information about how they were expected to vacate the archaeological park, but said officials told them they had until the end of this year to leave. Some expected people to start moving and building new houses at Run Ta Ek after the Pchum Ben holidays, when the basic infrastructure of the resettlement site is unlikely to be finished.

Officials have denied the clearance campaign in Angkor is an eviction, stating repeatedly that villagers in the park are choosing to leave now.

“Don’t say the word ‘evict,’ the people volunteered to change their homes,” said Apsara spokesman Long Kosal. “The use of the word ‘evict’ is not right.”

But the Apsara Authority — an office of the Culture Ministry that oversees the park and other Angkorian sites — has in recent months pushed residents to thumb-print documents officially consenting to tear down their homes and businesses. Residents told VOD they saw little choice in the matter, especially if resisting the campaign meant losing out on the chance of receiving land compensation at Run Ta Ek.

Seng isn’t the only one now without his main source of income.

“When we gave our thumbprint volunteering to move, we didn’t know that the shop would be demolished first,” said Nan, a woman who spoke from the front of her home in the roadside strip of Psar Derm Yeang village.

Nan sells sugarcane juice around the famous Bayon temple. She asked to be referred to with a nickname to speak openly, and generally believed residents of the park would struggle to transition to life in Run Ta Ek.

“They did not force us to leave in the dry season, but in the rainy season — I don’t know how difficult it will be,” she mused. “Mostly [other people here] don’t have the money to build houses. Covid has just finished, and no one could earn much.”

Nan doubted the aged timbers of her house would survive the move out to the resettlement area. As she spoke, a group of officials on the far end of the strip worked with some locals to tear down shop stalls.

Apsara spokesman Kosal referred journalists to the Land Ministry for more information, but insisted the resettled villagers would receive ownership rights to land outside the park.

“They have [them], don’t say they don’t, please say what is true,” he said.

Thousands of people are believed to live in the Angkor park, a 400-hectare zone that contains most of Siem Reap’s Angkorian temples. The government says villages such as Trapeang Ses are built illegally in the park and could jeopardize Angkor’s status as a Unesco-recognized world heritage site.

A Unesco spokeswoman wrote in an emailed statement that management of Angkor is “under the overall responsibility of the State.”

“The State party has to work very closely with the communities to address the issue of the encroachment and the recent constructions in Zone 1 and Zone 2, in line with the principles of livelihoods, inclusivity, and sustainable development,” the statement read.

Hun Sen earlier this month visited Run Ta Ek and said the site would be developed into a modern satellite city. He pledged to donate building materials to newly arriving families, said the newcomers would be given access to the country’s IDPoor program and asked microfinance institutions to provide low-interest loans for Angkor park residents as they relocate.

The Land Ministry has also been active in promoting the development of Run Ta Ek, which lies near the site of Siem Reap’s new, still-under-construction international airport. The area around the airport is home to multiple planned development projects from private-sector builders looking to construct large new residential and commercial districts.

Despite Hun Sen announcing otherwise, Siem Reap provincial spokesman Ly Samreth told VOD there are no immediate plans for larger-scale developments at Run Ta Ek.

“It is not a satellite city, now it is just a location for people who are leaving Angkor to live there,” Samreth said, explaining that the state was expected to oversee development for now. “The character of the area could become urban or a city, but preparations for a satellite city, not yet.”

The spokesman also said the government was preparing land at another relocation site – Peak Sneng commune, in Angkor Thom district. It’s unclear how many people would be resettled there.

Whatever the timeline for the Run Ta Ek development, Land Minister Chea Sophara — who recently referred to structures in Angkor park such as Seng’s home as “shame buildings” — has posted several maps to his Facebook page showing plans for a densely built area with a new hospital, schools and market.

The ministry has also overseen land lotteries to assign plots at Run Ta Ek to villagers displaced from the park, with promises to supply hard land titles to the incoming residents. Such titles are elusive in Cambodia, where securing land ownership can be highly difficult.

Though authorities are currently building infrastructure at Run Ta Ek, the site was in rough condition when reporters visited on September 8. Aside from an “eco-village” set up by Apsara by 2010 to house previous Angkor residents while promoting rural tourism, there’s little else currently there but roads cut into the muddy earth.

The eco-village features 100 stilted wooden houses arranged near a central lake ringed by agricultural projects. Rai Sanon, a schoolteacher, said she’s lived in the village for almost 11 years. Right now, only about half of the houses are occupied.

“Some people don’t know how to live here, they don’t have jobs to do, some have their children study in the city,” Sanon said.

The area is also the site of a recent land dispute as around two dozen families said they were being displaced by the resettlement of others from Angkor.

By now, the landscape of Run Ta Ek is changing rapidly as trucks full of sand and gravel trundle along its red dirt roads. At one edge of the area, reporters met a construction crew in the earliest stages of building what they said would one day be a hospital.

Not far from their worksite is a settlement built to house former residents of Siem Reap evicted or otherwise displaced to make way for the city’s roadways overhaul in 2020.

Today, the settlement is quiet. Several of the homes there, mostly small structures made of sheet metal, have signs out front advertising them for sale.

Sambo Phalla and Has Heang speak of their concerns about resettlement in Siem Reap’s Angkor park. (Phin Rathana/VOD)
Sambo Phalla and Has Heang speak of their concerns about resettlement in Siem Reap’s Angkor park. (Phin Rathana/VOD)

Sambo Phalla and Has Heang were among the few people out when reporters visited. They said they were included with more than 400 families resettled at Run Ta Ek during the road expansions.

Both said it was much easier to make a living in Siem Reap. In Run Ta Ek, the women laughed as they recounted the struggles of the past two years, during which time they said most of their resettled peers had migrated away.

“It is really hard to live here,” said Phalla, cursing to make her point.

With paid job opportunities scarce, Heang said she could barely get by sometimes. In the early days of their resettlement, there had been enough people to make money selling goods to neighbors. By now, she says, that’s not the case.

“After they built their houses, they had nothing to do, had no jobs, [and] they left,” Heang said.

*Some residents would only speak under pseudonyms for fear of retribution from officials.

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