Boeung Kak lake in 2011. Photos: Quoc Viet/RFA
PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA—In 1979, Phan Chhunreth ventured to Phnom Penh after toiling for nearly four years in a Khmer Rouge labour camp. Pol Pot’s genocidal regime had just been toppled by the invading Vietnamese army and the Cambodian capital, emptied as part of the Khmer Rouge’s agrarian revolution, stood eerily quiet.
Chhunreth and her family eventually settled near Boeung Kak lake — a 90-hectare pool of stagnant water in the heart of the city. By the early 2000s, more than 4,000 families had moved to the area, which became popular with tourists for its cheap guest houses, sunset bars and thriving drug scene.
In 2007, the city of Phnom Penh granted a 99-year, $79-million (US) lease to develop the lake and its surroundings to Shukaku Inc. — a previously unknown development firm owned by ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) senator Lao Meng Khin. With considerable Chinese investment, it plans to build exclusive shops, apartments and villas at the site. Boeung Kak’s residents were never consulted.
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In 2008, Shukaku began filling the lake with sand. As many of their homes became inundated with sand and the lake’s polluted water, local families were given the option of accepting an $8,500 resettlement fee (less than 25 per cent of their properties’ values) or houses located more than 20 kilometres from the city.
More than 3,000 families conceded. Forced to then demolish their own homes, they left in what Amnesty International has called “the largest forced eviction (in Cambodia) since the Khmer Rouge era.”
Those who remained are still fighting for a fair deal.
residents home were destroyed by Shukaku security. Photo: Quoc Viet/RFA
“I don’t want to move,” Chhunreth, 54, says from the small boarding house she runs with her family. Around it, chickens and dogs scavenge amid the mess of bricks, boards and cinder blocks that used to be her neighbours’ homes — only their tiled floors remain.
“The government is forcing people to leave,” she says. “There is no justice for us.”
Chhunreth and 12 other women were arrested during a peaceful demonstration in May. Each was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison for “abuse on state land” and “obstruction against public officials.”
Boeung Kak is perhaps the most visible land dispute in what has become a disturbing trend. Throughout Cambodia, entire communities are being driven from their homes with little or no compensation in order to make way for plantations, mines and commercial and residential developments.
Large parcels of land are being leased to both local and foreign firms as mining licences and economic land concessions. According to Cambodian human rights monitor LICADHO, such leases now account for 3.9 million hectares, or 21.5 per cent of Cambodia.
An estimated 400,000 to one million Cambodians have been involved in land disputes in the past decade. In 2011 alone, rights group ADHOC claims that nearly 60,000 people were forcibly evicted from their homes.
In a June 2012 speech, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said “Cambodia needs to continue to promote economic growth and accelerate poverty reduction.” He listed “diversification in the agriculture sector, agro-industry development” and “private-sector development” as being essential to this end.
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Such developments, he noted, create jobs. “If everything works according to the instructions,” he said, “our economic land concessions will do our country a world of good.
Compounding the clash is that many Cambodians lack formal land titles — a legacy of the Khmer Rouge’s push to eliminate private property. While such families are legally entitled to ownership papers if they have occupied their land continuously since 1996, this policy has not been widely implemented. (The policy, in any case, does not help to Chhunreth and her family, who moved to Boeung in 1997.)
Cambodian peoples call help. Photo: Quoc Viet/RFA
Without formal land titles, Cambodian families have no legal recourse when their homes are being threatened. Even with land titles, there are no guarantees their property rights will be upheld.
“When someone from a community raises a legal case against a private company or the authorities, that tends to go nowhere,” says Nora Lindstrom Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, a housing-rights non-governmental organization (NGO). “When the authorities or a company raise a complaint against a community member, it tends to get processed quite quickly.”
Evictions are often brutal and protests have been violently suppressed. In May, a 14-year-old girl was shot to death by government security forces as they cleared a village in the northeast.
Having encouraged the village to resist the development of a rubber plantation, local radio journalist Mam Sonando and eight members of the community were arrested. Authorities accused them of masterminding a “secessionist plot.”
On Monday, Sonando was sentenced to 20 years in prison. His co-defendants received suspended sentences ranging from 10 months to five years. Three other community leaders received 15 to 30 year sentences in absentia. Those responsible for killing the unarmed girl have not faced legal action.
In southern Cambodia, a coalition of NGOs claim that more than 12,000 people have lost their homes, farmland, community forests or grazing land through the development of industrial sugarcane plantations, 10 of which have been linked to CPP senator-tycoon Ly Yong Phat.
With both state and private security forces having been accused of burning crops and shooting livestock, the Clean Sugar Campaign is calling on the European Union to boycott Cambodian “blood sugar” — an export that benefits from a duty- and quota-free EU trade initiative aimed at “fostering development” in the world’s poorest countries.
At Boeung Kak, protests have been quashed by police with riot shields, motorbike helmets and electric batons. Live ammunition and bulldozers have been used at other disputed sites in the city. Elsewhere in the country, the story is much the same.
As protests become more common, Cambodian authorities are increasingly resorting to violence, says Amnesty International researcher Rupert Abbott.
“The government and the authorities can be incredibly paranoid,” says Abbott, who believes they are seeing resistance over land issues “as a challenge to their authority and the supremacy of the Cambodian People’s Party.”
Cambodian authorities have staunchly defended their actions. “We cannot let the people fight on the streets,” Cambodia Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan has said. “We keep law and order.”
According to CPP National Assembly member Cheam Yeap, “the impact (of land concessions) is just so little compared to the benefits for the country’s economy. . . . The affected people should understand that they should sacrifice for the nation in order to help government in reducing people’s poverty.”
In August 2011, the World Bank announced it was suspending all future loans to Cambodia until the Boeung Kak issue is resolved. Shortly thereafter, the prime minister declared that a small parcel of land would be put aside at the site for the lake’s remaining residents.
While 779 families were granted titles in this area, 96 — including Phan Chhunreth’s — were initially excluded. At least 20 plots were allegedly awarded to Lao Meng Khin, the senator, and his wife. Twenty-six excluded families later accepted undisclosed cash settlements. The area promised by the prime minister has yet to be officially demarcated. The World Bank lending freeze is still in place.
Emboldened by local media attention and the support of several NGOs, Boeung Kak’s remaining residents have vowed to protest until every excluded family receives a settlement. Since May, however, at least 17 local land activists have been arrested.
International pressure, nevertheless, seems to be having some effect. In June, 13 Boeung Kak women, including Phan Chhunreth, had their sentences commuted after spending more than a month in prison. Their vocal supporters included U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and their appeal trial was attended by representatives from several Western embassies.
Tol Srey Pov, 35, is a village leader and part of the so-called “Boeung Kak 13” released in June. She has been arrested twice before.
The ground around her community office is strewn with rubble. Nearby, children play on the vast expanse of sand that used to be Boeung Kak lake. A fishing boat lies half-buried at its edge. The imposing grey façade of Cambodia’s Council of Ministers is just visible to the south.
“The government doesn’t care about the people,” Srey Pov says. “The rich get richer; the poor only get poorer. . . . There are many injustices in Cambodia.”
According to Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, the majority of forced evictions in Phnom Penh are simply a matter of land speculation.
“These companies are basically government officials with power trying to grab these lands so they can actually sell it later on,” Virak says. “Thousands and thousands of families are being affected and nothing happens . . . not a single building goes up.”
Eight kilometres south of Boeung Kak, the 26-square-kilometre Boeung Tumpun lake is currently being filled with sand. “In one or two years,” Virak says, “it’s going to be the same thing as Boeung Kak.”
LAND DISPUTES IN NUMBERS
Cambodian land activists currently incarcerated in Phnom Penh
Land concessions granted since a temporary moratorium was announced on May 7
Years the CPP has dominated Cambodian politics. Hun Sen has been prime minister since 1985
Communities in Phnom Penh currently awaiting eviction
Families at Boeung Kak Lake still awaiting land titles
Vacant plots within Boeung Kak Lake’s 12.44-hectare settlement area
Land concessions and mining licenses granted by the government since 1996
Student volunteers dispatched across Cambodia this year to measure properties and issue land titles. They are only measuring properties in undisputed areas