Wednesday, May 13, 2009

They have no power

When I arrived in Phnom Penh, the bus dropped us off in the parking lot of a neglected mosque on the edge of Boeung Kak Lake, a divey backpacker haven about a ten-minute motorbike ride north of the city proper. Boeung Kak has for years been a hangout for backpackers in Phnom Penh. The area, which is commonly called Lakeside and is located behind the relatively upscale Phnom Penh Hotel, is a collection of skinny alleyways lined by bars, guesthouses, travel agencies and Internet cafes.

But soon there will be no lake. The area was recently sold for $79 million and the lake is being filled in to make way for shops and high-end apartments for foreign workers. During my month-long stay in Phnom Penh I watched a sandbar grow from the south side Boeung Kak into the center of the lake. All day a pipeline pumped sand from the Tonle Sap River on the other side of town and sent water back out the other way. Bulldozers and tractors rumbled around on the new finger of land pushing sand from one spot to another.

Many of Lakeside's longtime residents will be displaced by the development; many will be made homeless. Those with land titles are supposed to be compensated $8,000 by the government – hardly a fraction of what their buildings and businesses are worth – but no money has been paid out yet. It would not surprise anyone if the government never paid; after all, there is precedent.

In early January approximately 400 families in a small neighborhood near Phnom Penh's Independence Monument were forced by government troops from their homes. An entire apartment complex was leveled, the rubble from which still remains – an ugly reminder of the lengths the government and its corporate partners is willing to go to perpetuate development. The families were only allowed to grab what they could carry and were never compensated for their homes or lost belongings. Most of them now reside at a camp outside of town where children are malnourished, clean drinking water is scarce, there is no sewer system and disease is rampant.

This fate will more than likely be shared by many of the squatters who now live on Boeung Kak. One longtime expatriate, who runs a guesthouse on Lakeside, estimated that 80 percent of the area's residents don't own their land and will probably become homeless when the bulldozers roll in.

On the deck of a guesthouse at the south end of the lake, I spoke with the owners about the project. It was nighttime and moonlight rippled on the lake's surface; a small palm tree stood like a tattered flag, growing from a clay pot in the corner of the deck. The owners, who declined to be named for fear of reprisal, are convinced it is a Chinese or a Korean company that is filling in the lake. Other rumors, of which Phnom Penh has many, say that the developers are actually Cambodian and use a foreign company as a front. Either way, the government is complicit.

Since the plans for the lake were made public a couple of years ago, residents have complained, protests have been held and NGOs have advocated on behalf of the soon to be evicted. But still the pipeline gushes sand and the finger of land continues to grow.

"The people knock," one of the guesthouse owners told me, rapping his hand on the table, "but they have no power."

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