Mass evictions at Angkor Wat leave 10,000 families facing uncertain future

Cambodian government claims ‘voluntary relocations’ needed for Unesco status, but stallholders say they are being forced out of the site

After years of farming rice, Houn Chenda finally fulfilled her ambition of opening a shop at Angkor Wat last year, renting wedding outfits and costumes to tourists who pose for photos at the ancient temple complex.

“I love it,” says Chenda, 33. “I’m keeping cultural traditions alive.”

She pawned the family jewellery and pooled her savings – about £3,300 – in the hope the business would provide a better income than rice. But by the end of the year, the shop will be knocked down.

Chenda’s family is one of nearly 10,000 across Angkor archaeological park being evicted by the Cambodian government which says it is necessary to preserve the famous park. Residents describe it as losing their homes and livelihoods.

“I sold all my possessions to start this business, but now it’s going to be gone,” says Chenda.

Some residents have been promised small plots of land at a relocation site about 12 miles (20km) away, but the area is largely undeveloped and has few job prospects.

Angkor archaeological park was designated a Unesco world heritage site in 1992. With its array of Khmer empire temples dating back to the ninth century, it is Cambodia’s most popular attraction, powering the local economy with more than 2 million visitors every year.

Houn Chenda in her shop.
Houn Chenda in her shop. Photograph: Fiona Kelliher

Tourism provides virtually the only source of income for those living near the temples, which cover about 400 sq km (154 sq miles).

Residents say authorities visited their stalls last summer and told them to leave before 2023. Others were given closer deadlines, with officials saying they had received two warnings in the last five years about development at the site. As compensation they were offered a small plot of land, metal sheeting for a roof, $250 to construct new homes and 50kg of rice.

Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, has referred to the evictions as “voluntary relocations” necessary to retainUnesco status. “Angkor Wat might be withdrawn from the world heritage [list], because it would lose the terms and conditions that are required by the world heritage commission,” he said in August. In October, he warned that those who refused to leave would be evicted without “even a single cent”.

Unesco’s world heritage committee expressed concerns about “uncontrolled” development in the park in a 2008 report, but it has not listed Angkor as “in danger” of having its status removed since 2004, and in 2014 it commended Cambodia for progress on its management of illegal structures.

Cambodia has been asked to submit a report in December on conservation at Angkor.

“Unesco or the world heritage committee have never called for population displacements in Angkor,” says a spokesperson for the UN agency, adding that Cambodia assured the office that livelihoods, sustainable development and human rights would “be respected”.

Metal shacks in a grassy area next to a shallow stream
People at Angkor Wat have been offered plots of land in Run Ta Ek, pictured. Photograph: Fiona Kelliher

Yet residents like Min Sineang, 24, who grew up helping her parents sell clothes to tourists, say they were given no choice. An official told her during an August visit that if she didn’t destroy her stall, she would receive nothing. She owes $20,000 in bank loans from building it about five years ago.

Her husband took the stall apart after the authorities left, she says. “I just had a feeling of loss.”

Like her neighbours, Sineang was promised a 20- by 30-metre plot in the relocation village, Run Ta Ek. But commuting the 40 minutes to and from Angkor by motorbike is not feasible; she has no idea what she will do for work.

Signs for “Run Ta Ek eco-village” give way to a series of dirt roads, where trucks haul newly cut trees, and tractors dig into fields to make way for houses. The area is sparsely populated and has no school or hospital.

Residents here say they are being forced off their land to make way for families evicted from Angkor, at least 6,000 of whom have been told they could move to Run Ta Ek. Sok Yeurm, a 69-year-old villager, lives in a shack with seven children and more than a dozen grandchildren, and grows rice. She says authorities coerced her into thumb-printing a document to give up the land in exchange for a 20- by 30-metre plot – a fraction of her nine-hectare (22-acre) farm – under the threat of losing it all.

“I want to demand the land back, but I have no idea how,” says Yeurm.

Tep Kanada in Run Ta Ek.
Tep Kanada in Run Ta Ek. Photograph: Fiona Kelliher

Other villagers say Run Ta Ek is a place of last resort with almost no employment opportunities. Tep Kanada, a pharmacist, was relocated to the village two years ago after being evicted from Siem Reap for a road expansion project. Until recently, he slept under a tree while he earned enough money to open a pharmacy.

“The new people moving here would suffer like me,” says Kanada. “Those who live here are those who don’t have a choice.”

In Angkor, people are queuing outside a tent where relocation documents are being handed out.

One woman, who asks not to be named for fear of government retribution, says she believes in the mission of protecting Angkor: “If it is truly Unesco’s plan, we are happy to move.”

But she doesn’t know where her four children – ranging from 10 to 15 years old – will attend school when the family moves to Run Ta Ek, nor how she will support them after losing her income selling snacks from her Angkor stall.

“I can’t sleep. I’m always thinking about it, what I’m going to do next,” she says. “Living here, we have everything we need, but moving there – I don’t know what it will be like.”

Fiona Kelliher and Phin Rathana

The GuardianTramp

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