Cambodian lake activists still fighting against forced evictions

Cambodian lake activists still fighting against forced evictions

Phnom Penh (dpa) – Bov Sorphea sits cross-legged on a platform outside a modest wooden house, cutting posters out of a roll of printed paper. They depict her fellow activist, Tep Vanny, being led away in handcuffs by two female prison guards. 

It is a Sunday and Sorphea is preparing posters for a weekly protest against Vanny’s detention. The two women have spent time in and out of prison in the last years for their role in Cambodia's most prominent case of forced land evictions, which was condemned by organizations including Amnesty International and the World Bank. 

The women both come from the site of Phnom Penh’s former Boeung Kak Lake, a 90-hectare body of water that was filled in with sand in 2010 to make way for a luxury condominium project. Residents who lived on or around the lake have spent the last decade fighting against their evictions, which began in 2009, demanding fair compensation or land titles that will give them more rights. 

As prominent community leaders, Sorphea and Vanny have done several stints in prison for their activism. 

"I was sentenced to jail twice and once got a head injury [protesting]. Sometimes we get scared because we have a fight with the police and some kind of violent activities," said Sorphea, who has been part of the movement since 2010. "But if we didn’t protest, we wouldn’t have success today."

The activists have also been subject to prolonged periods of pre-trial detention – a method of punishment that is increasingly used against political activists and members of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party. 

Vanny has been in pre-trial detention since she was arrested at a protest on August 15. 

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, says such detention amounts to punishment without trial. "Holding someone like Tep Vanny for months in pre-trial detention is all about the government ratcheting up the costs of activism, and sending signals to others that if they oppose the government, they could suffer the same fate," he says. 

Despite these challenges, the Boeung Kak protest movement has seen some success - hundreds of families in the community have received land titles which protect them from forcible evictions.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Land Management declined to comment when contacted on Tuesday by dpa. 

While they can stay for now, the community has been irreparably changed by Shukaku, a powerful development firm owned by Senator Lao Meng Khin. In 2007, Shukaku leased the site of Boeung Kak Lake from the government although 4,250 families were living in small communities on and around the lake. 

At the time, many of the families in the area lacked land titles like thousands of other Cambodians despite having lived there since the 1980s.

Their problems are a legacy of the Khmer Rouge era, the radical Maoist regime ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. The regime destroyed land records and forcibly depopulated Phnom Penh and other urban centres in their attempt to build a peasant utopia based on collective farms. 

When civilians began to return to Phnom Penh after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, many were never issued formal rights to their land in the chaotic 1980s. The absence of documentation made it easy for developers to evict residents as Phnom Penh developed in the 1990s following the restoration of democracy. 

The United Nations estimates that in Phnom Penh alone, 11 per cent of the population was forcefully evicted between 1990 and 2009.  

With just a handful of families yet to receive land titles, Sorphea says the many challenges she has faced have been worthwhile. 

"Although we have been facing many problems protesting, we have got good results too," Sorphea says. "Right now, we are protesting to get the last three land titles for villagers and protest to let Tep Vanny out of jail since she’s a representative of the Boeung Kak community."

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