As city officials apparently consider the destruction of an iconic apartment building in Phnom Penh, residents there say they don’t want to be evicted. Some 2,500 people live in the White Building, which was built in 1963 but has become run down and could be unsafe for its inhabitants.
City spokesman Long Dimanche says Phnom Penh’s governor, Pa Socheatvong, has been misquoted in the press and that the building is not facing imminent destruction. But residents at the White Building say they are still worried.
“We want to live here, because it’s near important places, such as school for our children, a hospital, pagodas, and so on,” 55-year-old resident Yim Ry said. “They want it. We’ll go if we reach our demand.”
Earlier this month, Pa Socheatvong was quoted in media saying the White Building was condemned and needed to be demolished, and that residents could be moved to Chroy Changva district.
The White Building was constructed in 1963 from plans by architects Lu Ban Hap and Vladimir Bodiansky. It has around 470 apartments and was used by members of King Norodom Sihanouk’s government. It is considered one specimen of the New Khmer architecture movement, developed by architect Vann Molyvann.
Today, some 600 families live there. Residents are civil servants, artists, dancers, teachers and street vendors. Opponents of the building’s destruction say it should be preserved as a historic building.
“The building’s shape looks good,” said Ee Samrom, executive director of Sahmakum Teang Tnaut. “The government should send inspectors to inspect the building with participation from civil society and residents. What worries me the most is that if the plan is true, people there might face same future as other communities, such as Boeung Kak, Borei Keila, and so on. The government always promises to do good things, but in reality they don’t.”
Meurn Sopha, who has lived in the White Building since 1979, said she has not seen any government inspector to inspect the building yet. “I’m quite worried, because we live happily,” she said. “We don’t know about the new place. If they don’t give us proper compensation, we won’t leave.”
Hem Lem, who moved to the White Building after he and his family were forcibly evicted from the Dey Krahorm community a few years ago, said he’s worried about the same thing again.
“Before, they promised us a good house at a good location, but the location they gave us is just a place for ghosts to live,” he said. “There was nothing for us, so how can we live? Again, if the plan is true, I’m so worried.”
Pen Sereypagna, an architect who used to work on some of Vann Molyvann’s projects, said Phnom Penh will lose a part of its identity if the White Building is demolished.
Long Dimanche said on Monday that the city does not plan to knock down the building. “How can I explain to you a plan we don’t even have?” he said. “It’s a misunderstanding.”
Sung Sochara, deputy director of the municipal department of land management and urban planning, said municipal inspectors have been sent to inspect the building, but he declined to elaborate.