Updated: June 16, 2021 06:19 AM GMT
A floating village at Kampong Phuluk on the Tonle Sap. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0)
Authorities in Cambodian capital Phnom Penh have been sharply criticized for evicting hundreds of people and dismantling their house boats on the Mekong River, where families have carved out a lifestyle around fishing for generations.
Embittered residents of the floating communities say they have nowhere to go, particularly amid the pandemic, which has limited travel and resulted in the closure of the border with Vietnam.
Eviction notices, with little warning, were issued by the Phnom Penh Municipality following complaints the communities were little more than "floating slums" littered with plastic bags, raw sewage and other refuse along the Tonle Sap, a tributary of the Mekong.
“There are 316 homes that we have to evict today. This really affects the beauty of the city, the environment. You sit on a boat, it smells very bad,” Si Vutha, head of Prek Pnov district's land management office, told Reuters news agency on June 11.
The evictions are part of a clean-up campaign in the capital as Cambodia takes the rotating chair of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) next year and hosts the Southeast Asian Games in 2023 with national elections scheduled shortly afterwards.
With nowhere to go and unable to cross the border, Lyo Van Tran, a US-based Vietnamese advocate, urged a delay, saying the exodus could result in a backlog along the closed border that could pose a Covid-19 health risk.
Cambodian government spokesperson Phay Siphan said the evictions followed orders by the National Assembly
Critics also argue the evictions reflect a traditional animosity between Khmers and Vietnamese which has resulted in ethnic Vietnamese leaving Cambodia.
Vu Quang Minh, Vietnam’s ambassador to Phnom Penh, has reportedly visited the communities at least twice.
But Cambodian government spokesperson Phay Siphan said the evictions followed orders by the National Assembly and the decision was not motivated by politics or discrimination against anyone.
Le Thị Thu Hang, spokesperson for the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry, said her government was providing support and was working with Cambodian authorities to grant legal papers to the affected families.
She said Vietnamese Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son had asked his Cambodian counterpart Prak Sokhonnto to address the legal status of ethnic Vietnamese living in Cambodia.
“He also asked that the Cambodian authorities have a reasonable roadmap in the implementation of their socioeconomic policies to ensure the rights and welfare of the Vietnamese community,” she told Vietnam News.
“And enable the people affected by the policies to soon return to stability, to either keep their current work or switch to another appropriate occupation and to have full access to essential services.”
Cambodia has endured severe lockdowns since a sharp spike in the Covid-19 pandemic emerged in February which civil society groups like Human Rights Watch (HRW) say has hit low-income families hard despite government handouts.
“Millions of Cambodians are going hungry and fear losing their homes during the pandemic because there is no government social protection system,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW.
“Sporadic one-off cash transfers won’t address basic needs. The Cambodian government should provide timely social protection to everyone in need under a social protection system that protects rights and contributes to an equitable recovery.”