Residents of Phnom Penh’s historic White Building fled from their homes on Sunday night after large cracks suddenly appeared in the structure, which have been widely attributed to nearby construction work, sparking fears for their safety.
A group of officials from City Hall and the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction visited the building in Chamkarmon district yesterday morning and ordered that the construction of an 11-storey hotel backing onto the iconic apartment block be temporarily halted.
A statement from City Hall called on residents to “keep calm”.
But inside the building yesterday afternoon, residents – many of whom had spent a sleepless night on the streets or crammed onto the building’s stairways so that they could escape if the structure collapsed – were far from reassured.
Sixty-one-year-old Neang Tha said panic broke out after she and other residents in the southern part of the building saw cracks suddenly appear from the ground floor upwards.
The cracks can be seen on the ground outside the building, and others, more than 1-centimetre wide, extend around the corridors of the apartment block.
Next to the cracks, rows of doors are bolted shut, a sign, residents say, of others fleeing the building.
As she cradled her baby, 26-year-old Sok Heng said she was scared for her safety but had nowhere else to go.
Another resident, Chan Thy, spent Sunday night in a hammock on one of the building’s stairways. “I couldn’t sleep, because I had seen the cracks,” she said.
Outside the construction site next to the building, where excavators and cranes lay dormant yesterday, a letter pinned to the fence, signed by Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong, explains that permission has been granted to Rithy Samnang and To Chhean Lin to construct a hotel there.
Contact details for Biaxis, the construction company undertaking the work, could not be found yesterday.
Kert Sareth, an undersecretary at the Ministry of Land Management, said officials would continue to monitor the condition of the White Building and would hold a meeting with the construction company for “further checks and instructions”.
Cambodia-based architect Don Rennie said it was likely that “earth adjacent to the building or directly under the building has been weakened” by the construction works.
“What might have happened is the next-door construction probably bored a perimeter pilehole near … an existing White Building pile that caused the bored hole to partially collapse during drilling, thus causing the White Building pile to shift and cause the crack,” he said.
When asked if City Hall would pay for repairs to the building or order the company to do so, spokesman Long Dimanche said he was not sure. “We need to wait for the authorities and experts to examine [the damage],” he said.
Ee Sarom, executive director of urban housing NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, said authorities should organise a public forum with the residents to discuss the issue and offer solutions.
Following reports last year that the famous building was slated for demolition, Sarom added that the damage could be a “pretext … to move these people out”.
Dimanche denied that there were current plans to demolish the building because the residents “demand high compensation”. But, he said, the building “is old, so the residents who live there must be careful”.