As the Apsara Authority knocked down seven illegal structures in the Angkor Archeological Park yesterday, other residents expressed confusion over why they were first granted permission to build homes but are now being evicted.
Prior to the June 4 commune elections, at least 521 illegal structures sprung up in the park after the Apsara Authority received 641 requests for building permits.
Many of the structures – shops, homes, or expansions to homes – were built before the elections with permission from local authorities only, including village and commune chiefs.
Locals say they were under the impression this gave them the right to move forward with the construction, especially since it would have been impossible for the Apsara Authority not to be aware of their activities.
But the authority says only it can grant permission to build within the park because unapproved structures can harm the park’s reputation and world heritage status.
After multiple empty threats to dismantle villagers’ homes, the authority acted yesterday on its final deadline, knocking down seven structures in separate districts, according to its Facebook Page.
“If they want to evict us, why didn’t they stop our construction in the first place,” said Korng Chanthy, 68. “They should have told us that we cannot build here, but they did not say anything.”
“I really don’t understand why they did not prohibit us when we started building and they just came and told us now,” Ms Chanthy added.
“Now some of us have borrowed money from microfinances to build homes. I have no idea what I will do now.”
Another ten residents in the park said they, too, were given permission to build prior to the election by local authorities, believing it was sufficient permission and that they should act upon the authorisation before possible changes in local leadership.
“I heard the eviction and removal is imminent,” Ms Chanthy, a herbal medicine vendor, said. “I came to build the house before the commune election because this is my child’s land that she has owned for many years.”
“We don’t have the land title deed, but we have the paperwork from the village chief,” she added.
Peus Nhoy, 33, also said he had permission from his village and commune chief to construct a home within the park grounds, which he did before the election.
“I saw others were doing it so I did it too,” he said. “I borrowed $500 from a loan shark to build the home.”
“If they come to dismantle it, I’ll just surrender because we are not going to win,” Mr Nhoy, who helps restore the temples, added.
“The land was actually passed down from my ancestors. We built the home because it is time for me to get married.”
“When I built it, I asked permission from the village and commune chief, and they said okay, but when I finished building it, they told us to remove it.”
The authority first attempted to remove some vendors’ structures on June 23, but backed down after being confronted by 100 angry villagers.
A week later, National Defence Minister General Tea Banh, who is also chairman of the National Working Group for Siem Reap province, said the constructions must be removed to protect the national heritage.
“The site must be protected since our nation has a reputation for its heritage. Action must be taken where there are risks, whether the illegal construction is 100 meters or a kilometre away from the temples,” Gen Banh said.
The authority then issued one last warning to residents to voluntarily dismantle their structures or face demolition without compensation for any damage to their belongings.
Sours Narin, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said nearly 20 families had voluntarily removed their structures. Mr Narin added that it was best for the remaining villagers to follow suit.
“If the authority removes the structures, they will not give the removed construction materials back to the owner,” he said. “They will transport it to their unit, but if villagers remove structures voluntarily, they can keep the materials.”
Mr Narin said the authority is in the right in this case, and that the villagers are the ones who took advantage of local officials to get insufficient permission to build structures before the election.
“They constructed the houses before the election thinking that no one will come to remove them,” he said.
“The ban on structures ordered by the Apsara Authority was issued a long time ago, back in 2011 and everyone knows about that.”
“Using the election was just an excuse to build the new houses,” he added. “The removal is being applied to all people including police, normal people and even local authority officials. All are being treated equally.”
Another resident, who requested anonymity out of fear her home would be targeted, said she did not take advantage of the coming commune election and was simply under the impression that she was following the proper procedures.
“I am a long-term resident here, so I am supposed to be eligible to build the house,” she said.
According to a directive from the authority, longtime residents can expand their homes with prior approval from the authority.
“I started the construction before the election when I received permission from the village and commune authority,” the anonymous resident said, claiming she had also asked the Apsara Authority for permission but never got a response and so went forward with construction.
Asked if she is nervous that her building might face demolition, she emotionally responded: “I am very nervous. Every day, I cannot sleep well.”
Long Kosal, spokesman of the Apsara Authority, said villagers had deceptively taken advantage of the election campaign period to build illegal structures and that the authority would move forward with its work.
“There is no more extensions to the deadline,” he said. “We will cooperate with provincial hall forces, local authorities, police and military police and the prosecutor will join in as well.”