A REPRESENTATIVE of a secretive private firm yesterday defended development work being carried out at Boeung Kak lake, marking the first time a company representative has spoken to the press about the controversial project.
Lao Vann said in a brief interview that the project – which rights groups say will ultimately displace more than 4,000 families – was part of broader efforts to develop the country, and directed specific questions about it to municipal and other officials.
“I cannot delay the development process at Boeung Kak lake,” he said. “Our company is just a firm which received the rights from the government and from municipal authorities to invest in the Boeung Kak lake area, so if you have any questions please ask the government.”
He declined to give details about plans for the site, which has been shrouded in secrecy since Shukaku Inc – owned by Cambodian People’s Party Senator Lao Meng Khin – signed a lease agreement with the municipality for it in 2007. The following year, Shukaku began filling in the lake with sand to make way for a 133-hectare housing and commercial development.
He added: “If you were the prime minister or head of the government, would you decide to develop the Boeung Kak lake area? If you did, what would you do to avoid negative effects on the people? Without any negative effects, I think you cannot do the development.”
Residents and rights groups suggested yesterday that Lao Vann’s reluctance to divulge much about the project was consistent with the lack of transparency exhibited by the company.
“The fact that this is the first time anyone from Shukaku Inc is speaking publicly says volumes about the transparency of the project,” said Ee Sarom, an advocacy programme manager for the local NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut.
“There are many questions about the way in which the land around Boeung Kak lake was turned from state public to state private land and whether all the necessary steps for transferral were correctly completed,” he said.
He pointed out that “there is an ongoing World Bank Inspection Panel investigation into whether the World Bank breached its operational policies by failing to adequately supervise the Land Management and Administration Project, which unfairly denied land titles to the Boeung Kak families shortly before the area was leased”.
David Pred, executive director of Bridges Across Borders Cambodia, said Shukaku’s actions “constituted flagrant violations of Cambodian and international law”.
“Shukaku has been waging a low-level war against the people of Boeung Kak for the last 18 months – flooding families out of their homes – in order to strip them of their land rights and acquire, for the least amount possible, their prime real estate. To claim that this is somehow legitimate defies the imagination,” he said.
Janice Beanland, of Amnesty International’s Southeast Asia Team, also deplored the dearth of available information, which she said had “been lacking since the beginning of the process to develop the lake”.
Eung Navy, a representative from Village 24 in Srah Chak commune, said that requests for dialogue with the company were typically ignored. “But to date, we are seriously affected by the development plan,” she said.
Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema could not be reached for comment yesterday.