A protest drawing several thousand people from across Angkor Archaeological Park took an abrupt turn Friday, when the land management minister said there were no plans for a mass relocation from the park’s Preah Dak commune — days after residents said authorities had told them the opposite.
Instead of evicting Preah Dak’s roughly 9,000 people, as villagers believed was imminent as recently as Thursday, 27 families will be relocated from the commune’s East Baray area to rebuild the water system there, Land Minister Chea Sophara said in a speech to the some 3,000 people gathered outside the commune office.
It was the second protest this week in the tree-lined commune, where many homes are spacious and residents sell cakes, coconut treats and woven baskets to tourists.
Outside the sprawling commune hall, police officers arranged the protesters in a row five deep stretching down the road, where shouts of “We don’t want to go” occasionally broke out. People milled around, sharing water bottles and greeting their friends, wearing floppy hats and long sleeves to protect from the sun.
Once the Land Minister arrived, flanked by the Minister of Culture and Fine Arts Phoeurng Sackona, the attendees flooded the commune hall’s front yard all the way up to the front entrance, quickly filling up the plastic seats and cramming together on the ground to listen to the Minister speak.
“There are no plans to resettle people from this six-village Preah Dak commune,” Sophara said to applause and cheers. “That’s it.”
Starting around 5 a.m., police blocked the growing crowd from entering the road to the commune office and, at one point, a tuk-tuk laden with confused tourists. They removed the barrier about two hours later as villagers marched toward the office, holding cardboard signs with slogans such as “We don’t want to leave our village” and livestreaming on Facebook.
People took the morning off from selling goods and farming all around the park to attend the speech, traveling with their neighbors from communes such as Angkor Thom and Kok Chak.
The uniting element was the threat of eviction: Starting in mid-September, the Apsara Authority said that some park residents had to demolish their current homes or vendor stalls after two warnings from Unesco about overdevelopment at the heritage site. The evictees are meant to relocate to 20 by 30-meter plots in an area known as Run Ta Ek, but many are uncertain about how the relocation — 20 km away in a mostly empty area — could play out.
Then this week, villagers in Preah Dak said visiting officials had given them the same message. A 59-year-old woman whose family has lived in the commune for several generations and sells desserts for a living said that three people visited her house Wednesday and threatened they would raze her home if she wouldn’t leave.
Cadastral officials had already measured her land and rice fields and taken her soft land title during a previous visit last month, she said, which struck her as suspicious at the time.
“I was scared,” said the woman, who declined to share her name for fear of authorities. “They tell us to leave — but if we don’t agree to leave, they might clear our home. We all discussed with each other that we wouldn’t go.”
Other villagers and the commune chief likewise told VOD that the Apsara Authority had come to their homes to discuss “volunteering” to leave, but the implication — and whether relocations were required — wasn’t clear. Word quickly spread as people on motos zipped around to tell their neighbors, deciding that they would protest Friday and refuse to sell any goods.
At the protest, however, authorities denied that any visits to Preah Dak happened at all. Benghong Socheat Khemro, the director general at the ministry’s housing department, said that residents were confused and spreading information from other communes, but that no one had gone to Preah Dak specifically.
“It seems no official came to this commune,” Khemro said.
Sophara added during his speech that Prime Minister Hun Sen — who denied the relocation plans in a speech Thursday — had asked him to visit the commune to “clear up misinformation.”
Sophara insisted that two female reporters, one foreign and one Khmer, sit with officials rather than the audience and other journalists, for “safety” reasons. During his speech, he referenced both the foreign reporter and VOD by name to the crowd, saying that they would get a “different story” if they sat amongst the villagers.
“If they tell the truth, they won’t have a lot of views,” he continued. “They need to lie, or at least lie a little.”
Details of the relocation for the 27 families was not immediately clear. Sophara said that he would meet with those affected individually to discuss the rehabilitation of the East Baray area, which used to house a large artificial reservoir.
He also urged residents to avoid new construction and to keep newcomers from moving into the commune, claiming that more than 2,000 families had moved to Preah Dak in the past 18 years, out of 48,000 across the Angkor park as a whole.
After the speech, the mood was high. Some villagers streamed down the street while others stayed to greet the minister. “I’m delighted,” said San Moeurn, a 59-year-old Preah Dak resident who said neighbors had talked of little else but possible relocations all week. “I didn’t want to relocate — only stay here.”
But one man from a neighboring commune, who has been asked to leave his residence and move to a relocation site, said he was less than satisfied by the last chapter of the week’s events.
“Only 20% of his speech was about Preah Dak village and my village or all the other villages who protested today,” he said. The explanation “still wasn’t clear.”