Homes built on Boeung Kak Lake in central Phnom Penh.
PHNOM PENH—Sixty-year-old Nam has lived on a small plot of land in Village No. 22 alongside Boeung Kak Lake, in the Cambodian capital, since 1980. Now, she says, officials are saying the entire settlement has to go—slated for redevelopment into a commercial property.
“I am very concerned. They said our settlement here on Boeung Kak lakeside is illegal,” Nam said in an interview. “If it is illegal, why have they issued us a certificate? We have no land title but we do have a certificate of recognition.”
Nam and other residents fear forcible eviction—a relatively common occurrence in Cambodia, which has a high rate of homelessness—to make way for property developers. They have staged regular protests around Phnom Penh for months, most recently outside the South Korean Embassy after residents mistakenly assumed the developer was a South Korean company.
They also fear authorities won’t compensate them at market prices, to which they say the law entitles them. Authorities counter that they lack legal title to the land.
Ros Sem, a resident of Village No. 23, said he has lived along Boeung Kak Lake since 1989 and paid more than U.S. $10,000 for the land. Building his house cost tens of thousands of dollars more, but local authorities have only now told him his home isn’t legal.
“I’m very worried. Under the Pol Pot regime we lost everything. Under the Lon Nol era, we also lost. Since 1979, we’ve had only what we have now, and if we lose this we will be finished. We don’t have anything to depend on,” Ros Sem said.
Some 4,000 families now live around Boeung Kak Lake, which is Phnom Penh’s main catchment for monsoon rain. This includes several hundred residents living on the lake in houses supported by stilts, many of them in disrepair.
Many have had their water supply shut off since September and some wonder if this is part of a bid to force them out, according to the Phnom Penh Post newspaper.
In February 2007, local authorities granted Cambodia’s Shukaku Inc. a 99-year lease on the land at a cost of U.S. $79 million.
Development plans for the 133-hectare site include filling in 80 of the lake’s 90 hectares and using that space to build a luxury residential area, office complex, and shopping center.
Officials meanwhile are trying to assure residents that losing the lake as a rain catchment won’t cause environmental havoc.
Phnom Penh’s deputy governor, Pa Socheatvong, cited provisions for sewage infrastructure that will help divert waste water outside of the city, where it can be filtered and eventually released into the Mekong River.
Rights groups concerned
The land issue dates from the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, which forced mass evacuations and relocations throughout the country. This was followed by mass confusion over land rights and the formation of squatter communities when the refugees returned in the 1990s after a decade of civil war.
Housing Cambodia’s large, young, and overwhelmingly poor population has posed a major problem ever since.
In a 2007 report, Amnesty International estimated that 150,000 people throughout Cambodia were at risk of forcible eviction as a result of land disputes, land seizures, and new property development. Since 2003, forced evictions have reportedly displaced at least 30,000 families, it said.
ADHOC, a Cambodian human rights group, says nearly 50,000 people throughout the country were evicted for development projects in 2006 and 2007.
According to a report by the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, around 4,225 families will face eviction by the time the Boeung Kak Lake project is complete.
Catherine Baber, director of Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific Program, said the Cambodian government often facilitates evictions to serve the interests of a wealthy, well-connected elite.
“The authorities have been instrumental in demolishing villages, setting homes ablaze, and making poor people homeless without due process and at the behest of those who wield economic and political power,” Baber wrote recently.
“It is clear that relevant laws are seldom and arbitrarily applied, and the authorities have not protected the human rights of people affected by forced evictions,” she said.
Complicating the issue further, many Boeung Kak lake residents don’t possess legal titles to the land they occupy, but they say the government acknowledged their de facto ownership when it issued a book of family records.
Authorities counter that the land was illegally occupied and that the family records were simply published to document the number of families living in the area.
Sok Sambath, Daun Penh district governor, has said the more than 4,000 families living on and around Boeung Kak lake don’t have legal rights to the property.
“No one has ever issued a title to any plot of lands on the state’s lake. It is true that family record books have been issued to the residents, but that was just for administrative purposes. No authorities have ever issued any titles for villagers to own land in the area,” Sok Sambath said.
“They must realize that they live on state-owned land,” Phnom Penh’s deputy governor, Pa Socheatvong, said.
“The state and community thought that these folks were citizens with no shelters. We have made statistics of families—this means the families that have no shelters—and our compensation is to build shelters for them.”
But residents say that’s not enough.
“We fear losing our homes, and we fear there will be violence,” said one, who asked not to be named. “[According to the law], anyone who has lived on the land for five years or so will be granted a legal title.”
“We haven’t received a title but we have suffered emotionally. We have voted for [these officials] through all four elections and they should be considerate towards us.”
Original reporting by Chea Makara and Seang Sophorn for RFA's Khmer service. Khmer service director: Sos Kem. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han and Richard Finney.