White Building Residents Face an Uncertain Future

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In early September 2014, it was declared that the White Building, home to approximately 2,500 inhabitants, would be demolished as it is structurally unsound and a threat to its inhabitants. The building was created in 1963 by the then Prince Norodom Sihanouk to provide low-cost housing for Phnom Penh’s growing population, and was a symbol of social security. Today its residents are faced by substantial insecurities and potentially forced evictions.

The White Building was designed by architects Lu Ban Hap and Vladimir Bodiansky, and has a total of 468 apartments. It is considered a prime example of the New Khmer architectural movement, which was underpinned by the famous architect Vann Molyvann. Molyvann is well-known for many notable structures, including the Independence Monument, the Council of Ministers, and the State Palace.

The White Building shelters largely low-income residents, and is linked to stigmas of drug dealing, prostitution and human trafficking. However, it is home to a vibrant community of predominantly civil servants, artists, dancers, teachers and street vendors. For example, Sa Sa Art Projects is an artist-run space for experimental art practices that is located within the building. The not-for-profit organization is the only one of its kind in Phnom Penh. It facilitates knowledge production and sharing, and holds artistic events that are accessible to all Cambodians.

Rumors have sparked that the White Building might be demolished for development purposes. It is located on prime real estate in the heart of Phnom Penh. 7NG, a development company that owns the land adjacent to the building, has allegedly been attempting to buy apartments one by one, according to residents. It is therefore a concern that the potential eviction of residents from the White Building could be a push by the Royal Government of Cambodia (the “RGC”) and Cambodian elites to further their own interests, rather than protect the safety of the over 600 families living there.

Residents will allegedly be relocated to the Chroy Changva district, on an island in the Mekong River that is connected to Phnom Penh by the Japanese Bridge. Overseas Cambodian Investment Corporation (“OCIC”) is building an apartment block that will supposedly house White Building residents and other people evicted from various areas throughout Phnom Penh. White Building residents are concerned, however, that they may be relocated further from the city to inadequate housing. Ironically, OCID has pushed at least 16 families from their land in the same district that they are building the new apartments.

It is clear that the residents of the White Building are reluctant to leave their homes. If there was genuine concern for the residents, and the historical importance of the White Building, the RGC could fund the building’s renovation. Instead, the residents might be moved to new apartments, and potentially more Cambodians will be pushed out of their housing.

Lois Gauthier and Sami Shearman, CCHR International Interns, contributed to this blog post. 

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