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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Lake dwellers among thousands to be evicted

Lake dwellers among thousands to be evicted

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At the center of Boeng Kak a boy bobs around on an upturned barrel. He is one of

about 40 people who live in the middle of the lake in wooden houses piled on stilts.

Kids play around their homes in Boeng Kak. With the city signing over a lease for the area to a developer, the six families who live in the middle of the lake may have to move on within the year.

The six houses used to stand on land, but when the city built a new drain to feed

the lake, the water level rose, submerging the small island under waist-deep water.

The edge of the island, which can still be seen on old maps of Phnom Penh, is now

marked by poles that rise out at angles from the soupy green water.

The six families have lived on the lake for more than a decade. They moved there

at the beginning of the nineties, and set up homes and even a restaurant. First they

lived by catching the lake's fish to sell at local markets. Now they harvest the

trokun, or water spinach, which covers the lake and is used in a variety of dishes.

They claim to make 60,000 to 150,000 riel each day from the crop: a decent income

for a family in Phnom Penh.

Cheang Channa, 18, has lived on the lake since she was six years old. "It's

the only life I can remember," she said. "One day I would like to live

in an apartment but here life is not so bad. It's easy to make a living and easy

to feed and look after the children and we don't have to worry about a thief. If

they come here they must swim."

It's no idyll, of course - they live without amenities, electricity comes from batteries,

and their water is brought from the lakeside by boat - but their daily life is little

disturbed by the stresses of the city.

But last year, commune officials arrived in boats bearing cameras, guns, and bad

news.

"They said we must pull out the poles that mark the land and we must pack up

our houses and leave," Channa said. "They came every day for a week and

we felt very worried. They said the lake was going to be filled."

On February 6 the municipality signed over a 133-hectare leasehold to a private company

to develop the Boeng Kak area. With officials saying up to 90 percent of the lake

is likely to be filled, these villagers lie at the center of the Boeng Kak development

and the land rights dispute that is set to precede it.

Though the villagers have lived in the middle lake for more than a decade, they have

no land titles - in fact, strictly speaking, they have no land. Like hundreds of

other families on the lakeside they are regarded as squatters and under the conditions

set out in the leasehold contract they will not receive compensation when the bulldozers

and trucks finally move in.

According to a copy of the leasehold contract obtained by the Post, of the $79 million

paid by developer Shukaku Inc for the 99-year lease, an unstipulated portion is to

be used to compensate 4,252 families that live in the area. But this compensation

is unlikely to be monetary. The contract states that it will come in the form of

replacement housing, built within the development zone.

Last July, municipal officials took residents of Boeng Kak's Village 22 to tour a

housing complex constructed in the Borei Keila area. City Deputy Governor Mann Chhoeun

said it was this kind of housing that would be offered to the Boeng Kak evictees.

"We are negotiating compensation and trying to find a middle way," he said.

"But people with land titles will be given apartments in the Boeng Kak area."

It is the question of land titles that is at the crux of the eviction dispute.

Cheang Channa said she knows her family doesn't have a land title but she said she

was still hopeful. "I heard Samdech Hun Sen's promise that if people live on

their land for five years they can have that land," she said.

Cambodia's land law does grant the right to apply for a land title to someone who

has been in possession of a private property for five years and prohibits the deprivation

of ownership without due process.

But National Assembly President Heng Samrin said in local newspapers on February

15 that the five-year rule does not always apply and rights groups and legal advocates

have been severely critical of the inconsistent application of the law in previous

land evictions.

According to The Housing Rights Task Force (HRTF), a coalition of more than 20 national

and international organizations, the leasehold contract is "illegal" and

raises "grave concerns for all residents."

"[The contract] was negotiated in a shroud of secrecy without even the pretense

of participation from the tens of thousands of people who will be directly affected,"

HRTF said in a statement on February 22. "If these families are forcibly removed

from their homes, following recent precedents by the municipality and the poor track

record of Shukaku's director Lao Meng Khin, this would mark the largest single displacement

of people in Cambodia since the privatization of land in 1989."

Sam Rainsy, leader of the SRP and a former minister of finance, organized a protest

meeting at the lake side on February 18, where he told residents if they were not

given fair compensation he would "organize a massive demonstration not only

to protest, but to prevent the eviction."

"We will have a sit-in, a large-scale popular protest and there will be many

concerned people involved," Rainsy told the Post on February 21. "This

is segregation based on money. You are excluded from the city if you are poor. This

is worse than under the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge emptied Phnom Penh of all its

people; this regime evicts only the poor."

Rainsy criticized the lack of transparency and disclosure on the part of the municipality

and said the price of $0.60 per square meter was not nearly enough. "That was

only the 'over the table money,'" he said. "The deal doesn't mention the

under-the-table money. There was no public bidding, no transparency and no terms

of reference."

Land evaluators who spoke to the Post suggested that at current prices the real market

value of the lakeside area could be as much as $700 to $1,000 per square meter.

Despite several requests for interviews, City Governor Kep Chuktema refused to comment

further on the development, while Lao Meng Khin, who enjoys close relations with

Hun Sen, could not be contacted. The Ministry of Commerce also refused a request

for further information on Shukaku Inc.

Sangkat Srah Chak commune chief Chhay Thirith said he did not know what would happen

to the families in the middle of the lake and other families who did not have land

titles. "I don't know how many families in total have land title and how many

don't," he said. "The municipality is making the plan of what to do."

Exactly when the development will begin also remains unclear, but it's likely to

be sooner rather than later. According to the contract the developer has one year

from the date of signing to present it's master plan. And down on the lakeside, business

operators are being told not to renew their leases for 2008.

But out on the lake the people are yet to be embroiled in the dispute and are content

to harvest the trokun.

"After the officials came with guns we sent a letter to Hun Sen and appealed

that we should not have to leave," Channa said. "We received a letter assuring

us Hun Sen did not send the officials, so I hope we can stay."

Until the men arrive with guns again, Channa and her family intend to remain where

they are, in their homes in the middle of the lake.

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