Cambodia's White Building survived a civil war, US bombs and the Khmer Rouge, but can it and its residents survive an even bigger threat - the developers? [Vincenzo Floramo / Al Jazeera]
The Slum

Cambodia: Taking on the developers

Can the impoverished residents of Phnom Penh’s iconic White Building save it from the bulldozers?

As part of the ‘Where I live’ series, the Al Jazeera Magazine asked people from around the world how their lives have been influenced by where they live. Meet Ly Vannak, who lives next to Phnom Pen’s White Building.

JoJo the dog guards the small but impeccably well-organised shanty home 50-year-old Ly Vannak shares with his wife, Reach Et, their three sons, aged 13, 19 and 23, and his 70-year-old father-in-law, Ly Sarun.

Theirs was the first home constructed on the street directly outside Phnom Penh’s White Building when it emerged over the space of two to three days in 1987.

A decaying, re-enforced concrete monument to Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann’s 1960s urban utopian dream, the White Building has borne witness to some of the most turbulent moments in the country’s history. And today the neglected warren of apartments – and it residents – has the scars to show for it.

Once a Le Corbusier-inspired experiment in public housing for Cambodia’s middle and lower classes and a prime example of the ‘New Khmer Architecture’, the White Building was abandoned in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge depopulated the capital city, forcing residents into the countryside. In the four years that followed, more than two million people are believed to have died at the hands of the genocidal regime.

As starving, traumatised survivors flooded back into the city, they made their homes in the abandoned shells of the buildings that had been left behind. Now they – and the buildings they inhabit – are being confronted by another danger: rising land prices, a real estate boom and erratic town planning are changing the face of the city, and those who stand in its way – whether human or structural – are paying the price.

Some of the White Building’s 2,500 residents made their home there immediately after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Others have arrived in the decades since; some having been forcibly evicted from their previous homes, many arriving from the countryside in the hope of being able to break the cycle of poverty by finding work in the city. What unites them all is that they exist at the very bottom of Cambodia’s social and economic ladder.

A construction worker, Vannak’s story echoes that of his country. Following the fall of the Khmer Rouge, there was widespread fear that former regime soldiers would plot and execute a resurgence. In a bid to prevent this, the government decreed that it would clear the forests, leaving the remnants of the old regime with nowhere to hide. Vannak was among those forcibly recruited to perform this work. But as many of those alongside him fell victim to hidden explosives and malaria, he escaped.

It was not long, however, before his name came up on another list. This time the government was forcing men to fight at the border with Vietnam. But once again, Vannak managed to escape and made it home to Phnom Penh. His brother had been luckier – the ‘village chief’ had accidentally omitted his name from the list – meaning that he had been able to stay behind and look after their home during Vannak’s forced absence.

Vannak’s home is now an integral part of this colourful neighbourhood, with its small family restaurants, beauty parlours, local shops, and fruit-carts. But it has grown dramatically since his was the first lonely building on the block, and its residents are united by the concern that they will soon fall foul of the forced evictions and land confiscations they have witnessed taking place around them. Some believe that apartments within the White Building have already been sold to a development company and that it is just a matter of time until they come for the rest.

And for Vannak the consequences would be severe for the ‘village chief’ made another – potentially more harmful – mistake that could affect him. He should have registered Vannak’s home. But he did not. Which means that without any official paperwork proving ownership, Vannak and his family would have no legal rights and be due no compensation should the developers come calling.