If you didn’t know it was coming to an end, life in the Chroy Changvar Cham fishing village would appear tranquil in many ways.

The settlement, or what’s left of it, is clustered below a glimmering white hotel on the muddy banks of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, on the very tip of the Chroy Changvar peninsula, the land that splits the two rivers in a wide fork that runs through Phnom Penh.

But though the villagers here can easily watch the growth of the city’s skyline on the opposite shore, their own small village is disappearing.

Fishing hauls have dwindled for the community in recent years as they have elsewhere in Cambodia, where low water levels in the rivers have accelerated a pattern of environmental degradation. But as hard as it is today to make a living here along the muddy banks, it will soon be impossible.

The decade-old Chroy Changvar Cham community has been evicted and their time to leave is fast running out.

A week after the Kingdom’s Water Festival celebration in November, Chroy Changvar District ordered the community to pack their things and clear out their makeshift homes, all of which are built on city-owned land. 

Khor has been living in the area for more than 30 years, now she wonders about the future of her community. Photo: Rachna Thim
14-year-old Hami is concerned about whether she will be able to continue her education. Photo: Rachna Thim

The reasoning they were given, according to village leaders, is that the government is attempting to beautify Phnom Penh in anticipation of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). ASEM, an inter-governmental forum that draws leaders from Asia and Europe to discuss prospects for better economic integration, will be held in November this year at the neighbouring Sokha Hotel, a five-star establishment opened in 2015.

Below the hotel’s white walls, the residents of the tiny fishing village were issued a physical statement that told them “the constructions in the area have made the city lose its public order and beauty, and it is a restricted area by the government”.

The original statement gave the villagers a one-week deadline to be out, a timeframe that has long since passed, as reported by the Al Jazeera in December. They were to be all set to leave by the end of that week, however, since then, the community landed a negotiation that granted them an end of January extension to wrap up their lives and move on. 

After the January 31 deadline, members of the community will be permitted to live along the banks, strictly confined to their boats, until the end of the year. As overcrowded as the village has always been, some families will be forced to dock their boats in the middle of the river as space on the bank is limited. 

City Hall spokesman Met Measpheakdey declined to comment on the issue and directed the questions to local authorities. While Chroy Changvar district chief Klang Huot could not be reached via phone. 

There is not much going on here. We catch very little fish these days

Khor, an 80-year-old resident of the village

As the months have gone by since the announcement, the people have trickled out, looking for homes and opportunities elsewhere. And nearly two months after their original eviction date, the village buildings have now been mostly cleared away. One of the few remaining buildings is the village mosque, a makeshift structure built of sloppy woodwork and headed by a metal tin roof with no proper walls. 

For a decade, the Chroy Changvar Cham community lived in a fishing village in the shadow of Phnom Penh’s fast-developing sky scrapers. Photo: Michael Klinkhamer

Community leader and local imam Y You told Southeast Asia Globe that the second concession, staying on the river bank, will likely only apply as long as his people are gone before the ASEM meeting takes place.

You is trying to help the other villagers land on their feet, even as their long-held homes are dismantled.

“We know that the land does not belong to us, and we have no intention to hog it,” he said. “We just want a proper place to stay.”

Born into a fisherman family and a native to the Chroy Changvar district, the 60-year-old is no stranger to being shuffled around. After being chased from another part of the peninsula ten years ago, You’s family decided to move to this current Cham community.

More families arrived in the years to follow, and they coalesced into a solid community in their now-evicted area of around 75 families, and an additional 200-250 nomadic fishermen who travel back and forth from the provinces to the capital. The people dwelt on homes they’d built for themselves on land, as well as on their boats moored in shallow water.

Today, the Chroy Changvar Cham people mostly live on the deck of their boats and are dependent on making a living from fisheries, far from the extravagant metropolis life of Phnom Penh across the water. At this time of the year, they can get around 3-5 kilogrammes of fish by making several boat trips, and selling it at a nearby local market. While they earn their keep, it is still far from making a comfortable living.  

In one of the shacks stooped just above the water, 80-year-old Khor quietly guts a basket of fish given to her by a neighbour, cleaning the haul in time for lunch. She’d hurt her foot a while ago, and she has to lean delicately on her right knee if she wants to sit comfortably.

“There is not much going on here. We catch very little fish these days,” she said. 

A Cham fisherman oils his boat’s engine before heading off to another trip. Photo: Rachna Thim

For Khor, these river banks around Phnom Penh have been home for nearly 40 years. Three years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, she and her husband embarked on a journey via a small rental fishing boat from their hometown in Prey Veng province. The river carried them to Chroy Changvar, where they eventually settled down.

Khor took up the breadwinner role to support the family when her husband died more than 20 years ago. In the early morning, she would go fishing on a family boat. In the afternoon, she would sell the day’s harvest in at a nearby market.

I am very worried now that I am mostly on my own. Me and my daughter’s family would move into the boat, but where can we go?

Khor, an 80-year-old resident of the village

Besides the time spent on the water or among the vendor stalls, most of her life revolved around the village. Now, shrivelled by the long years since, Khor can no longer go out to fish or earn a keep. Of her family, only she and her youngest daughter still remain in the village. Now they’re unsure whether they’ll be able to hold on much longer.

“I am very worried now that I am mostly on my own,” she said, “Me and my daughter’s family would move into the boat, but where can we go?”

Descendants of the former Champa Kingdom, the Cham people are now scattered in minority communities across several Southeast Asian countries. While they often follow the Muslim faith, they are predominantly Hindu in Vietnam. In Cambodia, they are officially recognised by the central government as a minority ethnicity with an estimated population of some 200,000 people. 

The Khmer Rouge had eliminated half of their population through mass killings and destroyed their religious schools, mosques, Qurans and ancient cultural texts. In November 2018, the Khmer Rouge tribunal proclaimed the first genocide verdict for violence against the Cham Muslim and Vietnamese minorities in Cambodia – the sole verdict of its kind, despite the millions of ethnic Khmer believed to have been killed by violence and starvation in the Kingdom.

Today, the threats facing the Cham villagers of Chroy Changvar are all too common to the capital, where a rapid development effort has also left many poor, non-Cham residents in search of new homes as they are evicted for the construction of prime real estate. Despite that broader connection, the trials of the Cham may often go unnoticed by Cambodia’s general public, who they remain apart from in many respects, obscured by their semi-nomadic lifestyle and use of their own language.

Cham men before their eviction from their homes in Chroy Changvar last year. Photo: Michael Klinkhamer

We’ve always complied with whatever the authorities want. That is why I am so disappointed when they just toss us away like that

Community leader and local imam Y You

While a fisherman by trade, You has also indulged in advocacy work for the Cham community. This includes representing the community and communicating on their behalf with the local authorities. Familiar with evictions from his previous experiences, part of his job is also to ensure that there is no unnecessary friction between parties.  

“We have never caused any troubles during the time we stayed here.” You said. “This has always been a model [village] because there were no robbery or drug cases happening here.”

Hanging on to their remaining piece of land in Chroy Changvar peninsula and a sense of belonging, the Chams are simply looking forward to putting the stress behind them and relocating as a community.

“They told me to leave first, and people would follow suit,” You said. “I could do that but what would happen to the people after I leave?”

You said he’s currently eyeing a plot of land in Kandal province for the community to move to. The land costs around $42,000, but he has only managed to fundraise $2,000 so far in the past two months. He also expressed his disappointment that the government is unable to find or give them a permanent place they could relocate to. 

“We’ve always complied with whatever the authorities want. That is why I am so disappointed when they just toss us away like that,” he said. 

Cham fishing boats on Chroy Changvar. The community has for a decade sustained itself from fishing, but is struggling to do so with lower fish levels in the river, as well as the threat of eviction hanging over their heads. Photo: Michael Klinkhamer

The issue for this community, however, extends beyond simply finding a new place to relocate. 

Many children from the village go to schools in Chroy Changvar district. Relocating can be difficult for adults, but for the younger generation – many of whom have been in the village all their lives – it could easily shatter their dream of pursuing education. 

You Hean, 24, is a fisherman and a son of the community leader Y You. He recalled becoming accustomed to being shuffled from one place to another during his childhood, resulting in him being unable to consistently attend school. 

“I lost count of how many times we had to move around when I was a kid … we did not get to go to school during my time. Only the younger generation managed to go to school,” Hean said, adding that of his five siblings, only his youngest sister manages to stay in school.

Yu Hami, a 14-year-old from the village, and a seventh grader at the local high school, fears the same thing could happen to her.

“If we really have to move, I do not think I can continue my studies anymore,” she said.

An elderly Cham man prepares his fishing line in the waters off Chroy Changvar. Photo: Michael Klinkhamer

Both of her parents make a living from fishing, though their income suffered after her father fell ill and was no longer able to continue doing so. Her mother now helps with weighing and gutting fish in exchange for income to keep their lives together.

If the village shuts down, Hami’s parents have told her that she’ll have to go live with her grandmother in Tboung Khmum province, approximately 160km from the capital. Once she’s there, the poverty-stricken family are unlikely to be able to afford to continue Hami’s education.

“I do not want to go there or be far away from home,” Hami said. “My parents are getting older, and they need me now more than ever.”

Hami hopes to stay in the district and continue going to school, with dreams of moving to the city so she can support her parents so they can leave the fishing business. 

“I want to work in an office, and earn a lot of money so that my parents would not have to live such a difficult life anymore,” she said. 

But now, pushed from the land on to their boats, and soon pushed off the river altogether in preparation for November’s star-studded diplomatic event, Hami, along with others in the Chroy Changvar Cham community, may need to put bigger aspirations on hold while they simply figure out where they are going to live tomorrow.

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