Tuesday, November 08, 2022

Cambodia's Land-Grab

 Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital, was once home to 26 lakes that provided fishing, fresh water and protection from flooding, and a livelihood for thousands of people. Since the 1990s, however, 16 of the lakes have been filled in for boreys (gated communities) and residential housing, as Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, has pursued a development boom. The remaining 10 have been at least partly filled.

Over the past year, Boeng Tamok, the Cambodian capital’s largest remaining freshwater lake, has been parcelled off to government agencies, developers and investors, ranging from a Cambodian pop star to the military to the land minister’s daughter The 3,200-hectare (8,000-acre) lake is disappearing: every day, dozens of trucks dump big piles of sand into the water.

Hundreds of families who lived on the shore have already been evicted, leaving about 250 families – roughly 1,200 people – facing eviction, according to Phnom Penh urban land rights organisation Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT).

Boeng Tamok was among the last holdouts until the government claimed the area as “state public land” in 2016, paving the way for parts of it to become “state private land” – and ultimately tagged for private development.

 But the reclassification process is opaque, and 2,152 hectares, or about two-thirds of the lake, have been privatised without input from the public. Environmentalists, land rights groups and researchers have pointed to the negative consequences of lake-filling, including loss of livelihoods, animal habitats and increased risk of flooding.

“How can they define if the land is no longer used for the public interest, classify it as private state land and then give it to other groups or developers?” says Soeung Saran, director of STT, an NGO, "The public also wishes to know why specific groups of people can get this much or this many hectares of land while other groups are not able to, even though they have been living there for generations,” he says.

“I have to fight for this house, this land, this shelter for my children,” says Prak Sophea, 43, looking out at the water from her back veranda. “It’s unjust … why do we have no rights to live here?” 

She is is the de facto leader of about 100 residents – mostly women – fighting to keep their homes for as long as possible. The group delivers petitions to city hall, stages protests in public parks, marches along the lake’s shrinking shoreline and even faces off against bulldozers nearing their stretch of roadway, documenting their activities on Facebook Live. In 2020, she led a 50-strong group in a march towards the prime minister’s house. She and other protesters have relegated men to the back of the group, believing that police are less likely to treat women violently.

 Kong Toeur was accused of “obstruction and incitement” for allegedly blocking a road while protesting in May. It hasn’t stopped her: in a separate incident in mid-October, she discovered that authorities were about to fill in the patch of the lake where she and 10 others fished for daily food. She refused to budge from her fishing boat, stopping the trucks from dumping sand for three days. But she had to go home to sleep. When she returned, the fishing plot was gone.

 “You live in air conditioning and have a car,” she says of the officials and developers taking over Boeng Tamok, waving both hands in disgust. “I don’t even have an old bicycle. Why can the rich live here and the poor can’t?”

Officials have repeatedly defended the decision to carve up the lake, with Hun Sen calling critics “jealous” and a land ministry spokesperson arguing at a recent meeting that the lake’s development outweighs its preservation.

‘Why do we have no rights?’: Phnom Penh lake community make a last stand against developers | Global development | The Guardian

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