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RIGHTS-CAMBODIA: Mass Evictions May Follow Lake Grab

Andrew Nette

PHNOM PENH, Aug 28 2008 (IPS) - A plan to redevelop Phnom Penh’s largest remaining natural lake into a residential and shopping precinct has ignited a storm of protests and claims that it could result in the largest eviction in Cambodia’s post-war history.

Boeung Kak lake is being filled in and communities evicted to make way for a residential and shopping precinct.  Credit: Andrew Nette/IPS

Boeung Kak lake is being filled in and communities evicted to make way for a residential and shopping precinct. Credit: Andrew Nette/IPS

Local and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) fear the redevelopment of Boeung Kak lake could be the precursor of a fresh round of evictions across the country and renewed pressure on communities involved in existing land disputes.

The commencement of the project comes ahead of a Sep.10 meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) which will debate whether or not to extend the three-year mandate of Yash Ghai, the Special U.N. Representative for Human Rights in Cambodia.

NGOs plan to raise the Boeung Kak project at the meeting as evidence of the continuing problem of forced evictions in Cambodia.

Rumours about the lake’s redevelopment, circulating for more than a decade, were confirmed in February 2007 when Phnom Penh Municipality signed a 79 million US dollar, 99-year lease on the site with a company called Shukaku Inc.

Although little known, Shukaku Inc has been linked in the Cambodian press to Pheapimex, a giant land company owned by ruling party senator Lau Meng Khin.

Amid a heavy police presence, contractors began pumping sand into the lake on Aug. 26 in preparation for the development of a 133-hectare commercial and housing project.

According to Housing Rights Taskforce, a coalition of more than 20 local and international housing rights organisations, residents have been told the pumping will continue 18 hours a day until 80 hectares of the 90-hectare lake are filled.

Boeung Kak residents claim they were not notified about the work and have received few details about the project and what will happen to those affected.

Chou Ngy, lawyer for the residents, told an Aug. 27 press conference that the project breaches several Cambodian laws.

These include the failure to publicly release an environmental impact assessment and the lack of a bidding procedure preceding the agreement.

He said residents are currently preparing to file an injunction to prevent it going ahead.

"According to the 2001 Land Law, the lake itself should be inalienable state land, so its ownership cannot be transferred for longer than 15 years, during which time the function (of the property) must not change," said a joint statement released this week by the Centre for Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) and Amnesty International (AI).

"Many of the families have strong legal claims to the land under the Land Law," it said.

Municipal authorities say around 600 families will be affected, but NGOs put the number at approximately 4,250 or roughly 30,000 people.

Local media has reported that residents have been given three choices by the municipality; they can move to government approved accommodation in the north east corner of the city which NGOs say is not yet completed, take an 8,500-dollar lump sum in compensation, or wait until alternative housing has been built around the new Boeung Kak lakeshore.

The market rate for land is up to 6,000 dollars per sq m. Under the terms of their lease, Shukaku is paying approximately 50 cents per sq m per year.

"We are very concerned what will happen to our houses and livelihoods and the possibility that we will have to move," Som Vanna, one of the affected Boeung Kak residents, told the Aug. 27 press conference.

"We ask the company to halt the process of filling in the lake and meet the community to discuss the issue."

Touch Sophany moved to Boeung Kak in 1979 and makes a living growing vegetables such as morning glory around the lake. "I think I speak for all families when I say the Boeung Kak lake area is very easy to live in," she said. "Even poor people can make a living catching snails in the lake. The water is polluted, but this is being used as an excuse to force people out in the name of development."

"I want to stress the compensation offer is not acceptable to the people," said Sophany. "They should pay us the market rate."

International NGOs have criticised the planned development.

"If the government wishes to develop Boeung Kak, they should do so through a legal process, with the participation of communities that live around the lake," said Dan Nicholson, Phnom Penh-based Asia Coordinator, COHRE.

Concerns are also being expressed about the potential environmental impact of filling in the lake, which NGOs maintain is a natural reservoir for excess rainwater during the monsoon season.

Officials from the ministry of water resources and meteorology disagree and have told the local media it is not a flood protection area. An environmental impact assessment conducted by the Phnom Penh Municipality also supported the decision to fill in the lake.

Land grabbing and forced evictions are a major issue in Cambodia,

Cambodia’s media is littered with stories of large-scale real estate and infrastructure projects, many of them involving the allocation of significant areas of land, often as concessions.

Two significant development projects have been revealed in the last month alone.

These are the development of an island the size of Hong Kong off the coast of the southern province of Sihanoukville and a two-billion-dollar residential project in the former French colonial resort of Kep.

Housing organisations are concerned about the rights of people in those areas given Cambodia’s recent history of forced, sometimes violent, evictions, many clearly illegal under the country’s laws, which occur without proper consultation or compensation.

So serious was the outcry about the issue that in the months leading up to the Jul. 27 election Prime Minister Hun Sen personally intervened in one dispute and threatened to dissolve the National Authority for the Resolution of Land Disputes, seen by many as a lame duck for its lack of activity.

After a pre-election lull in evictions, there are fears that communities currently embroiled in land disputes will be under renewed pressure and that there will be a spate of new evictions.

"There is an expectation that a lot more evictions will happen and that evictions in the works for some time will now get the green light," said David Pred from the NGO Bridges Across Borders, which operates a school in the Boeung Kak area.

"We are concerned that a number of evictions could be carried out after the election and we call on the government to respect the laws of Cambodia and their international human rights obligations," said Nicholson.

Housing rights organisations aim to make Boeung Kak a major issue at the Sep. 10 UNHRC meeting.

The meeting will consider whether to extend the mandate of the current special representative for human rights in Cambodia and as such will look at the country’s human rights record.

COHRE, AI and Human Rights Watch are all expected to make presentations about the human rights situation, said Nicholson. "There is no doubt that Boeung Kak and other evictions [in Cambodia] will be on the agenda,’’ he said.

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