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 BATTLE FOR BOOEUNG KAK LAKE
 [The Land of Gold]
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UNDER THE AUSPICES OF ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

Reader discretion is advised: Despite an economy that is booming, the biggest threat to the poorest of the poor can be prosperity. With increased investment and development, vast numbers of Cambodians are being priced off the land.

The biggest battle rages at Phnom Penh's Boeung Kak Lake, former swampland where refuges from the Khmer Rouge built new lives, until developers hungered for the formerly worthless site, conspiring with the corrupt government to concoct the biggest relocations since the vile Khmer Rouge cleared out the cities in the 1970s.

PHORN SOKHIM IS 56, AND EACH YEAR seems to etch new fears into her tired face, wilting her frail, rail-thin frame. All skin, bones and bad teeth, she weighs 70 pounds, but still works 12-hour days, earning $2 to $3 by farming vegetables on Boeung Kak Lake in Phnom Penh.

 

Some 4,000 families make their home, literally upon the largest lake in Cambodia's capital. Shacks perch helter-skelter on sagging planks, a grassroots settlement of squatters and refuges who, in the traumatic aftermath of the murderous Khmer Rouge, found shelter here in land, or rather lake, that nobody else wanted.

Phorn's entire family perished. Making her way to Phnom Penh, she hid, than rebuilt her life in this swampy basin. Yet, even amongst the downtrodden, there is a pecking order. Phorn's one-room hut sits as far as one can wobble on the wooden planks before plopping into the polluted lake. The tiny hovel, second-hand wood and corrugated metal, looks as rickety as Phorn, but both are survivors.

For how long? That's one question that keeps Phorn shaking, awake at night. Last night, I heard the boats come, she says, eyes wide with terror. I heard them and couldn't sleep. In the morning, she found that stakes marking the boundaries of the water gardens sustaining these lake dwellers had been pulled up. But a bigger dread: Maybe they will come back and knock down my house.

 
Cambodian law limits economic concessions to 10,000 hectares, but LICADHO has documented regular patterns of abuse that include granting deeds of contiguous land to companies with different names, but the same office address and director.

Pheapimex, with close ties to the government, allegedly claims 300,000 hectares.

Pheapimex has also been linked to Shukaku, the mysterious firm granted a 99-year lease on Boeung Kak Lake in February 2007.

Village leaders are often bought off. And the government controls the judiciary, notes LICADHO'S Pilorge.

They use physical abuse, divide communities, and threaten not only land organizers but their relatives with arrests.

The same fear grips ramshackle communities around the lake, where 30,000 or so people make their home, some for decades. Many feel terrorized, under siege, with no one to turn to. Authorities won't help. Residents say they are helping the boat men steal the lake.

Rumors have circulated for years that the lake would be targeted for development. Still residents were shocked when, without public or community consultation, they heard that they would have to relocate far from Phnom Penh, in the latest of a series of large-scale evictions serving the surging development that has transformed Cambodia, formerly a forlorn Asian backwater, into the region's newest tiger economy. Growth has averaged nearly 10 percent over the past three years; only China has grown faster in that period.

All around this battle-scarred country, still healing from the wounds of decades of war, the world's worst genocide and numerous coups, entire towns and ethnic populations are vanishing, often violently, to make way for rubber plantations, logging or mining operations, says Naly Pilorge, director of the local human rights group, LICADHO.

Her group has documented numerous instances in which police and military forcibly removed residents, arresting resisters and activists. Some villages have been burnt or bulldozed, and protesters killed in clashes. By the end of 2006, LICADHO says nearly 15 percent of Cambodia's arable land had been leased to concessionaires, generally big companies with strong links to the government.

If anything, since then, evictions have picked up pace. Increasingly, they pave the way not for roads, plantations or rural developments, but massive real estate projects like one planned for this lake, most of which would be filled in. Cambodia's real estate sector also claims Asia's second-fastest growth rates, again trailing only China.

Much of that growth has been along Cambodia's coast, where local developers and foreign funds are carving up some of Asia's last undeveloped shoreline for expensive villas and resorts. But the biggest projects dot Phnom Penh, where massive, self-contained satellite cities fueled by money from South Korea and China promise gated communities, boating clubs and golf courses for the privileged.

Meanwhile, current residents, like those at Boeung Kak Lake, many claiming title to their plank-connected plots under the country's 2001 Land Law, are shunted aside with little compensation, or forced to remote relocation sites, which often lack any services or hope of livelihood. Landlessness is an increasingly critical development and human rights issue in Cambodia, notes a report from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Ironically, despite the development, or perhaps because of it, the problem grows worse, according to David Pred, founder and director of Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia, an aide group in Cambodia that provides child protective services, health care and, increasingly, land-rights counseling and advocacy. Land grabs are reaching epidemic proportions, he says. This is the biggest problem facing Cambodia.

Many figures bear him out. British charity Oxfam estimated that landlessness affected perhaps 3 percent of the total population in 1993, in the aftermath of what was then the biggest United Nations peacekeeping mission. Over US$10 billion was spent to disarm the various Cambodian factions that had been fighting since the 1970s, and to oversee the first elections in 1992.

Although civil society has been slow to emerge, Cambodia can claim to be among the most democratic countries in Southeast Asia. While corruption remains a huge stigma, a new report from transparency International ranks Cambodia as the 14th-most corrupt country in the world - the free-wheeling economy and improved security has lured a growing group of frontier investors. Yet the soaring economic growth hasn't trickled down much. By the end of the 1990s, landlessness likely reached 12 percent, according to USAID.

The figure has almost doubled since then to 23 percent, according to Pred. In Cambodia, the rich steal from the poor and get away with it, he said dejectedly after a recent land-rights meeting at Boeung Kak Lake, in a small school and health clinic that his group runs for lake residents. This is all government-sanctioned under the auspices of economic development, but really, it's just a land grab.

The situation around the country is equally dire. In a report at the end of September, Amnesty International said 150,000 Cambodians were living in risk of evictions in the wake of land disputes, land grabbing, and agro-industrial and urban redevelopment projects. Adhoc, a local rights watchdog, estimates 50,000 people nationwide were evicted for development projects in 2006 and 2007. LICADHO estimates that over 30,000 people have been displaced by forced evictions in Phnom Penh alone in the last five years.

Amnesty and local land-rights activists say pressure on residents and those who organize have increased around the country. Our workers have received calls threatening them unless they backed away from this case, says Dan Nicholson, Asia and Pacific Programme Coordinator for the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), which is fighting to halt the lake project or at least win adequate compensation for residents. Battle for Boeung Kak Lake: | 1 | 2 |

About the Author: Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who has been living in and covering Asia since 1991, roaming widely around the region to cover events for various magazines, loike the Far Eastern Economic Review (www.FEER.com) which ran this story in October 2008. Words and all photos copyright RON GLUCKMAN

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