PHNOM PENH — On Wednesday morning, Marn Neang stood on the bank where the Tonlé Sap and Mekong rivers converge on the east side of Phnom Penh. Most days at this hour she would be out fishing with her husband, but today Marn Neang has gathered with neighbors under a rustling canopy to discuss an eviction order from local authorities.
Their view is the same as that of the 5-star Sokha Hotel towering just above and behind them on the Chroy Changvar peninsula. On the river's opposite bank, the pre-World War I Royal Palace, with its French-influenced formal gardens, presides beneath a skyline framed by tall cranes and taller buildings.
The hotel, with elegantly appointed air-conditioned rooms offering Wi-Fi and flat-screen TVs, overlooks the settlement of wooden huts and fishing boats where many Khmer Islam, or Cham, and ethnic Vietnamese families live.
Marn Neang has spent more than 40 of her 49 years on the riverbank and survived on the river's bounty. She lives with her husband and five children on their fishing boat. Not that long ago, she built a 4-square-meter hut for her mother-in-law, even though members of the community have been ordered to relocate numerous times.
This time, however, the relocation came with a date: June 12.
On June 2, Phnom Penh City Hall issued an eviction notice for residents of floating houses, illegal fish farms and small houseboats on the Tonlé Sap, the Mekong and a third river, the nearby Bassac.
At the time, Klaing Hout, the Chroy Changvar district governor, declined to say what would happen or how the authorities planned to evict people living along the river, according to VOA Khmer.
"In principle, this is not relocation," he said. "Relocating means moving from one place to another. For now, this is about not allowing the use of the river, fishery lots or inhabitation of the area. It is related to environmental concerns."
The notice said the order was issued to preserve the river's ecology and water quality and improve the city's aesthetics. Since then, what might happen to those who refuse to leave their river homes has remained unclear. City authorities have said they would take administrative action, and if the residents resist, the next step would be filing legal complaints against them.
VOA Khmer asked for comment from Khuong Sreng, the Phnom Penh municipal governor, and from Phnom Penh City Hall spokesperson Meth Measpheakdey, but neither responded.
Phay Siphan, a Cambodian government spokesperson, said that the decision by the local authorities "is in adherence with the Cambodia National Assembly and is not motivated by politics or discrimination against anyone."
Marn Neang told VOA Khmer that she doesn't know what's going to happen. "We have to remove both our huts and boats." She said she cannot afford to relocate or buy a plot of land. She is also concerned about keeping her family fed if they're not fishing on the river and worries that her children won't be able to return to the school they know.
"We are used to living here no matter how bad it is," she told VOA Khmer. "I don't know where I can go."
And because of COVID-19 fears, people in nearby villages won't let her move in with the family boat. "It is very difficult. I don't know what to do with my five children."
Marn Neang added that if she were not allowed to live on the water, she would want to ask the authorities for a small plot of land. But she wouldn't dare make the request.
Matt Zen, a 66-year-old with curly hair, was fixing a fishing boat as he spoke with VOA Khmer. He said that he lives on his boat with three children and unless authorities find him a new location, he cannot afford to relocate.
"My home is on the boat. I sleep here, eat here and also earn my living here," Matt Zen told VOA Khmer. "If they want me to leave my boat and not allow me to live on the boat, then the government has to provide a place for me because I am poor and I have no money to buy land."
Some 10 kilometers north of the Chroy Changvar peninsula, in the Reussey Keo district, the authorities are already disassembling floating homes and illegal fish farms.
District resident Sai Sokha, 59, grows morning glories around her 30-square-meter floating home. She is Cambodian and lives with her Vietnamese husband and her teenage granddaughter, who has meningitis.
Sai Sokha spoke to VOA Khmer as she returned from selling morning glories at the market, saying she received an eviction order but would not be able to relocate with a week's notice even if she had the money to pay for moving help.
"I will wait on the others. I am old now. What can I do? If they want to destroy my house tomorrow, let them do it themselves. I cannot move in one week on my own as they want," she said.
Her neighbor, Oum Sreypich, lives with four children and two other families in a floating home smaller than Sai Sokha's. Packing is under way, with stacks in a corner awaiting transfer off the water. Moving off the water will be a challenge.
"I can use the water freely when I live on the river. Electricity is not really a problem. So, when I move to the ground, I have to pay for all utilities, food, and place to sleep. I cannot afford those," said Oum Sreypich.
Vu Quang Minh, the Vietnamese ambassador to Cambodia, expressed disappointment via Facebook the day after City Hall issued the eviction notices.
According to the ambassador, about a thousand families from Vietnam live in the floating houses in Phnom Penh, and ordering them to leave within seven days is asking the impossible. The families are poor Vietnamese and Khmer-Islam families, he pointed out, adding that all have legal residence permits and many have lived on the river for generations. Even without a surge in COVID-19 cases, moving would be difficult, he added.
Seoung Senkarona, the spokesperson for local rights group Adhoc, said he supports the eviction order, but the authorities should listen to the requests from the river people and give them enough time to relocate.
"If it is rushing or abusing their rights, it is not a good solution. … So, there should be a proper talk and negotiation," he said.
But for now, the eviction order stands. And as for Marn Neang, she must, as she says, "float like water lettuce, with no clear direction or ending. Only follow the wind."