Vanndy Sambath had lived next to Phnom Penh's lush Boeng Kak lake for years, peacefully growing vegetables and accommodating tourists to support his family.
That all changed in 2006, when a contractor arrived and announced government-sponsored plans to fill in the lake, forcing his neighbourhood to relocate in the future.
Two years on, he worries for his family's future. Finding a new job will be difficult, he told IRIN.
“They came here and didn't give us a choice,”Vanndy said. “We haven't moved yet, but we're all scared when they come and clear us out. We don't know what they will do.”
Since 2006, Cambodian construction firm Shukaku Inc. has been filling in one of the city's only remaining lakes - where Sambath lives - to make way for guesthouses, shopping centres, and an array of high priced apartments.
According to a 2007 report issued by the Cambodia Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR Cambodia), 4,225 families will be forcibly evicted from Boeng Kak.
Interactive map showing Boeng Kak Lake
However, sidelining Cambodia's vast slums for urban development is far from new.
A joint South Korean and Cambodian firm has similarly filled in most of Phnom Penh's Pong Peay lake since 2006 to build a US$2 billion satellite city called Camko, which will showcase boutique shops and skyscrapers.
Pong Peay had previously been home to numerous shanty towns.
South Korean construction tycoons building the massive International Finance Centre - heralding Phnom Penh into a new age of skyscrapers - have also forced slum dwellers to the city's outskirts.
Yet many of the planned spaces remained unsold, with questions raised about whether there are enough rich people in the country to sustain such a project.
“The problem is that this caters to a tiny powerful group,” Ou Virak, director of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, told IRIN. “The government is attempting to develop and modernise Cambodia quickly, but they've lost sight of the people they're trying to help.”
When the genocidal Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975, they immediately ordered an evacuation of the capital to transform Cambodia into an agrarian society. In a matter of hours, the communist victors displaced millions, turning a bustling metropolis into a mere ghost town.
According to activists, recent forced evictions in Cambodia are the largest since those in the 1970s.
“This is close to the largest forced displacement of people if you count all the elections and years that it has been happening,” Virak said.
Adhoc, a Cambodian rights watchdog, says about 50,000 people throughout the country were evicted for development projects in 2006 and 2007.
In contravention of the law?
But Cambodia's 2001 land law clearly states that lakes are public property and cannot be sold.
Another 1996 law states that the natural resources of Cambodia should be “conserved, developed, managed, and used in a rational and sustainable manner,” said land activist Chak Sopheap.
Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
|Strong economic growth in recent years has spurred development projects on|
To get around this, instead of directly selling the lake to developers, the Phnom Penh Municipality has leased it for 99 years to Shukaku Inc., said David Pred, co-founder of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Bridges Across Borders.
“The lease is illegal because the lake is state public property and cannot be leased for more than 15 years or damaged or destroyed,” he told IRIN. “By filling in the lake, it will be destroyed.”
Added to that is the fact that most Boeng Kak residents are unaware of Cambodian land laws, he said.
Despite this, developing the capital remains a priority for the Phnom Penh municipal government, which has stated in official releases that evictions were necessary for progress.
When the Boeng Kak lake project first got under way, Environment Minister Mok Mareth cited concerns that filling in the lake would seriously affect Phnom Penh's drainage system.
He called the project 'illegal' after HSC Company, a contractor for Shukaku, began constructing a pipe without a license to fill the lake with sand.
HSC Company responded that it had the permission of the city authorities, not the Ministry of Environment, to begin construction. Neither Minister Mareth or Shukaku could be reached for comment.
Mareth now supports private development at the lake. Others, however, remain steadfastly opposed.
“Filling Boeng Kake lake will have untold environmental consequences, as it is the primary natural reservoir where rainwater is collected during the monsoon season,” NGO leader Pred warned. “It is hard to believe city hall officials that the lake filling will not lead to flooding and other negative environmental consequences.”
Meanwhile, residents of the proposed project await news of their fate.
“I don't protest against the government's development plan,” Yim Sokhom, an army commander and Boeng Kak resident, told IRIN. “But I don't agree with private developers using the government's name to get their way.”
Sokhom added that Shukaku Inc. representatives offered to reimburse him to the tune of US$4,000 for his property, while similar properties around Phnom Penh sell for over $40,000.
|What am I supposed to do with $4,000? I can't buy a new house in Cambodia with that money. If they're willing to reimburse me fairly, I'll gladly move.|
“What am I supposed to do with $4,000? I can't buy a new house in Cambodia with that money,” he said. “If they're willing to reimburse me fairly, I'll gladly move.”
Human rights activist Virak also cited concerns over reimbursement. “As with any policy, if you cannot fairly compensate those negatively impacted,” he said, “then it goes to show that the policy is not an effective one.”
Opposition lawmakers from the country's Sam Rainsy Party in January tried to halt the lake plan until the government had fully considered the project's environmental impacts. They did not receive much support from the National Assembly, according to the Phnom Penh Post newspaper.
In a similar development scheme around a lake in Kandal Province, which turned out to be illegal, the Cambodian government removed a governor and his two deputies on corruption charges, then demolished the construction projects.
Family connections, corruption
Forestry watchdog Global Witness released a report in 2007 detailing Prime Minister Hun Sen's family connections with illegal logging and land grabbing in various provinces. The government had previously banned the organisation in 2005 from operating in Cambodia.
Ty Sokun, director of the Forestry Administration, responded to the report by calling Global Witness a group of “insane, unprofessional people”, according to the International Herald Tribune.
Both Human Rights Watch and Freedom House noted in 2008 that Cambodia had not made sufficient progress in its good governance. Freedom House's 2008 index criticised government officials for engaging in land grabbing without regard for a majority of the population.
Senator Lau Meng Khin, owner of the land companies Pheapimex Co. Ltd. and Shukaku Inc., is also chairman of the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce and is close to Hun Sen's family, according to the Phnom Penh Post newspaper.
In addition to the land around Boeng Kak, Senator Lau was also granted 315,025 hectares in Kompong Chhnan and Pursat provinces, according to the OHCHR report.