At the edge of this expanse of barren land, a house lies buried, filled almost to its roof with sand. This is the Khin family home, the last in their village after more than 3,000 families were evicted from the area to make way for development.
It’s hard to imagine it now, but this mostly empty stretch of sand in northern Phnom Penh was once a large lake, home to hundreds of families crowded around its banks and living in stilted houses on its waters. In 2007, the government granted a lease to Shukaku Inc., a company controlled by CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin, to develop the area. Two years later, to the villagers’ alarm, the company began filling in the lake.
As the sand surged, so did the pressure to leave. “We had many friends, neighbors, but after Shukaku came, they all left,” Khin Chantha said.
They all fled the rising tide of sand years ago, but the 54-year-old scavenger still lives in the tiny sliver of his home that is still habitable, along with his wife, Ngor Vanna, 38, and their four children. The eldest is 10, the youngest 6 months. Sitting in the shadow of a towering new mosque, their property resembles a junk yard, guarded by a dog and its barking pups.
On a recent afternoon, Mr. Chantha sat outside his sunken, sand-filled home, the thin wisps of his hair matted in the heat. He wore a sandal on his left foot, a dirty T-shirt and an iron chain necklace he found while scavenging. On his hand, one finger is adorned with four rings—more scavenged treasure that he believes will prevent high blood pressure. He hasn’t, however, found a cure for his chronic thalassemia, a hereditary blood disorder.
His one bare foot scraped the sand that buried his home of more than 20 years.
“I came to live here near the end of 1993,” he said. With the aid of his brother and some hired help, Mr. Chantha built his house on stilts, rising 5 meters above the water. Now, only the roof portion peeks above the sand, giving the family just enough space to live inside.
Made of dilapidated wooden walls patched with eroding plywood, there’s barely room to stand over the sleeping mats. The corrugated iron roof leaks. “Every time it rains, we cannot sleep,” Mr. Chantha said. The only decoration is a photograph of Mr. Chantha’s uncle, now deceased, and a laminated picture of the Buddha hanging from the rafters.
On school days, Mr. Chantha takes his three older children on an hourlong trek across the sand and into the city to class, while Ms. Vanna stays home with the baby girl. Then, carrying a sack, the father makes his rounds, collecting plastics and metals to scrape together a living for the family.
The government has offered Mr. Chantha a 72-square-meter plot of land in exchange for the family’s land near Boeng Kak. But he says it’s not enough to compensate him for the 400 square meters of prime real estate he claims to own.
“The company made me angry because they violated my rights,” he said. “I would like to file a complaint against Shukaku for making me a victim of their development.”
Mr. Chantha has refused to move until his demand for a larger plot of land is met. For now, his lone house stands, a decaying structure not nearly as strong as his resolve.
The Boeng Kak project has been highly controversial since its inception in 2007, when Shukaku was awarded a 99-year lease over 133 hectares—since reduced to 114.
“They didn’t ask the people whether they agreed or not,” Mr. Chantha said of the government. “The people were very shocked and very concerned. They didn’t know what to do.”
The ensuing forced evictions made headlines around the world, rallying the support of local and international NGOs and prompting concern from the U.N. and donor governments. Repeated protests by lake residents flustered Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government and delayed Shukaku’s development plans.
More than one firm has divested from the project amid the controversy, and it was only last month that a Chinese firm began construction on the first major commercial and residential complex on the site. Shukaku’s head of corporate communications did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Yet Boeng Kak is but a large drop in what rights group Licadho sees as a surge in land conflicts across the country. In February, the group released a statement saying that last year it had registered 10,625 families newly affected by land conflicts in the 13 provinces it monitored, three times the number it documented in 2013. The government has dismissed the figure as “groundless.”
According to the 2001 Land Law, any Cambodian who has “enjoyed peaceful, uncontested possession” of a property for at least five years before the law took effect “has the right to request a definitive title of ownership.”
But over a decade since the law was promulgated, the land titling system is still mired in inefficiencies and corruption, says Sia Phearum, secretariat director of the Housing Rights Task Force, a coalition of five rights groups. “The law is good, but the implementation is not good,” he said.
More critically, many in Cambodia do not have official documentation to prove they have lived in an area for any number of years, complicating their path to legal ownership. “The people who have nothing, it’s difficult for advocacy, difficult to negotiate with the government,” Mr. Phearum said.
In the case of Boeng Kak, most of the families did not have the chance to secure the land titles they were legally entitled to before the government handed the land over to Shukaku.
Before the development project began, there were 4,252 families known to live in 10 villages around the lake. More than 3,000 have since been evicted. Following public outcry, in 2011 Mr. Hun Sen signed a sub-decree carving out a 12.44-hectare area for the remaining communities to live in, reducing Shukaku’s lease to 114.41 hectares.
While the concession was welcomed, it did not cover all families. A 2012 survey published by urban housing advocacy group Sahmakum Teang Tnaut identified 70 households excluded from the new land grant, although most of those families have since accepted offers to move into the concession.
According to Mr. Phearum, in addition to Mr. Chantha, City Hall is still in negotiations with six families over compensation for their land.
Municipal spokesman Long Dimanche said the demands of those six families were unrealistic.
“We have not reached an agreement with them yet because what they have demanded is too much and we cannot give it to them, and they do not accept our offer,” he said of those families. “If they demand too high, we cannot do it.”
As for Mr. Chantha, the spokesman said: “We’ve negotiated with this guy many times, but he does not accept the offer.”
Mr. Chantha is asking for four 72-square-meter plots of land. He won’t budge, and neither will the government.
Mr. Chantha first came to Phnom Penh from Pursat province as a boy. “During the royalist era I came to the city. I was about 10 or 12 years old,” he said. His parents had sent him to study in the city, and he lived with his uncle in Tuol Kok district.
About three years later, the Khmer Rouge came. “My uncle was executed. I was evacuated to Takeo province,” he said. In Takeo, Mr. Chantha labored in the fields, and after the Khmer Rouge’s fall, he remained in the province for another year.
“And then there were people who told me to come to Phnom Penh. They told me that in the province, there is no future,” he said.
Mr. Chantha moved back to the capital, this time staying at an orphanage. It was about that time when he first became ill. He was later diagnosed with thalassemia. “The doctor said the white blood eats the red blood,” he said, using the common Khmer term for the disorder. “I spent all my money on treatment, but it didn’t cure me, so I started drinking traditional Khmer medicine and I got better,” he said.
Phnom Penh in the early 1990s presented an enticing opportunity. Mr. Chantha heard there was land—or in this case, water—up for grabs in Boeng Kak. “At that time, that was how it worked: People came to mark their land,” he said. “Crowds rushed to grab land—all kinds of people: police, soldiers, ordinary people.”
When he arrived at the lake, about 20 families had already settled there. Mr. Chantha stuck poles in the water to demarcate his chosen plot. “After I grabbed the land, a few weeks later I sold [plots] to other people and I got money to buy wood to build a house,” he said.
He found steady work as a construction worker while doing small-scale fishing in the lake. He wasn’t rich by any means, but he was now a landed man with a house and a job. He met Ms. Vanna, who lived in a village near his hometown in Pursat, and she married him.
When Ms. Vanna followed her husband to Phnom Penh, she didn’t bring much with her. “Only a suitcase full of clothes,” she said. She also had no idea what to expect from life in the city. To start with, she had to get used to living on water.
“There were water lilies, all kinds of plants that live on the water,” she said.
They would wake up at around 6 every morning. “We’d get up, we’d take care of the children, wash the clothes and cook,” Ms. Vanna said. They often ate the fish her husband caught. “He laid down the net at night and then came to take it in the morning and again in the evening,” she said.
The family was living off Mr. Chantha’s construction job, where he could earn about 25,000 riel (about $6.25) per day. They bought rice and other food at the market, crossing the adjacent mosque grounds to walk there.
Ms. Vanna said she sometimes missed her homeland. All her five siblings still live in Pursat—on solid ground, she noted.
“The difference is, living on the land is easy. Living on the water is difficult because the water is polluted and there are insects, scary snakes. We must keep our children in the house,” she said.
There was one accident, when one of their daughters fell into the water and had to be snatched back by Ms. Vanna’s mother who was visiting at the time.
“I want to live on land,” Ms. Vanna said. But it didn’t happen quite as she expected.
Mr. Chantha saw the pipe on the edge of the lake. “It was big,” he said, about half a meter wide. It was strangely silent, no cacophonous machinery, just the hum of the sand pouring in.
“Shukaku started filling the sand without telling the villagers,” he said. “One [pipe] pumped to my direction, other pipes to other directions.” When the residents made sense of what was happening, they panicked.
“The people started to get scared by the sand and the pressure,” Mr. Chantha said.
Mr. Phearum, of the Housing Rights Task Force, said the company worked with the local government. “The local authorities…and the company [were] working together to work with the people to encourage people to move,” he explained.
But the visits were less than friendly. “They used the police to be their security, with rifles, in order to protect the company workers,” Mr. Phearum said. He said they did more than guard the company. “They [did] not allow the people to organize meetings inside Boeng Kak. They used police and military police to stop when they organize meetings.”
Tension escalated. Violent clashes erupted. Those who spoke out were arrested. Prison became so normal for Boeng Kak activists that the community worked out a system to take turns caring for the children of those jailed.
Amid the protests, talks to settle compensation for the evictees dragged on. “There were two options for the residents,” Mr. Phearum said. “The first option is a flat at Borei Santepheap about 25 km away from the city. The second option is they will provide $8,500.” A third option came with Mr. Hun Sen’s 2011 land grant, allowing some of the families to stay there.
Mr. Chantha said the authorities and Shukaku had invited him to negotiate four times. “The first time, they offered a [72-square-meter] plot,” he said. The second time, they offered him two plots. But he still thought it wasn’t enough. “My land is about 400 square meters,” he said.
The authorities have since reverted to offering him one plot of land. Mr. Chantha is adamant that he deserves four. “I’m not against development, I just want proper compensation,” he insisted.
Meanwhile, the sand kept rising. It took about seven months for it to reach his house, Mr. Chantha said.
“I was very frightened,” he said. “When they pumped the sand, the water splashed around,” washing away their possessions. “Two water containers floated away. My rice pot is gone. Some of my valuable property fell in the water and sand.”
Life became increasingly precarious. “I was worried about my children,” Mr. Chantha added. “We could not walk on the sand because it would sink. I had to tie my child to prevent her from walking and falling into the sand and water.”
And the pressure intensified. “They came to tell me: You should accept the policy. You cannot stay here, your house will be flooded,” Mr. Chantha said.
At one point, he added, people came and threatened to demolish their house. “At that time, I wasn’t home,” he said. “My wife cried, begged them not to.”
Eventually Mr. Chantha stopped going to work because he was afraid he would lose his house if he went too far away. “I stopped doing construction when they started filling in the sand. If I go to work, come back and lose my home, what’s the point?” he said.
Instead, he went to almost every demonstration against the Boeng Kak evictions. “My child could not go to school for three years because she had to go to protests with me,” he said.
The house was left standing—but only barely. Since the sand began to engulf it, Mr. Chantha and Ms. Vanna have had to raise their floor three times. The company stopped pumping the sand in 2011. Mr. Chantha pointed to the ground. “Now it’s all gone.”
“Life changed,” Ms. Vanna said, cradling their youngest child. “After they started filling in the sand, my husband became a junk collector. Me, I stay home and look after the children…. We do not have money.”
Mr. Chantha sells recyclables and junk to a dealer in the area. “When I pick up my daughters from school, I also pick up cans, plastic, water bottles and metal,” he said, earning him around $0.75 a day. “Sometimes my children do not have food to eat.”
These days, they rely on food from Wat Preah Put Khousacha, a long walk from their house. “When there was water, we could have fish,” Ms. Vanna said. “Before, we had rice to cook. Now we don’t have rice. Every day now we eat rice from the pagoda,” she said. “Sometimes in the pagoda they have [food], sometimes not.”
The family used to get drinking water from the mosque. But with a fence and thick brush now blocking the way, Mr. Chantha must haul 30-liter jerrycans to the nearest cluster of homes. For washing clothes and dishes, they use water that has run off from the construction site and collected in a small depression near their house. They take showers at the house of prominent Boeng Kak activist Tep Vanny.
The house also has no electricity. “My house has candles. Before, an NGO gave me a lamp, but a robber came to steal my lamp one year ago,” Mr. Chantha said. He has since gotten a new, solar-powered lantern, another gift from an NGO. It helps them set up mosquito nets at night.
Poverty isn’t their only peril. “When there’s sand, there are snakes,” Ms. Vanna said. “We are concerned. The children, when they see a snake, they don’t dare to go down.”
Her husband, however, has a different attitude. “If I feel any danger, it is because of Shukaku,” he said.
Though the violent clashes have died down, Shukaku’s development project continues to incite criticism.
“The people cannot enjoy the development. Just only the individuals—the government, the powerful and the rich who enjoy the development,” the Housing Rights Task Force’s Mr. Phearum said.
Rights groups have urged the government to provide a permanent solution for families excluded from Mr. Hun Sen’s concession by handing them vacant lots within the carved out area.
Boeng Kak activists have also pleaded with the municipality to address the severe flooding that has increasingly affected communities since the lake—once a vital drainage basin—was filled in.
City Hall spokesman Mr. Dimanche said the government doesn’t have an answer yet for families like Mr. Chantha’s. “We do not have other means beside compromising,” Mr. Dimanche said. “We will have other measures to implement, but we are not sure yet what measures we would take.”
Despite the disruption to thousands of lives, the government still believes the Boeng Kak project will benefit the city. “We do not want the place to be unsafe like before, and we have to make it organized and produce workers and help grow the economy,” Mr. Dimanche said.
Mr. Chantha, however, is focused on the long and solitary struggle to survive.
His children make the most of their life amid the sand, playing with the scraps their father collects and embracing the rolling dunes as their expansive playground.
When her husband is at work and her children are in school, Ms. Vanna, too, likes to take walks around the sand. “I walk when it’s not hot,” she said. “You see new things.”
The Phnom Penh skyline has changed since they first moved here, with the curving facade of the Vattanac tower now rising above the dunes. In the distance, more construction is underway.
Ms. Vanna hasn’t gone back to her hometown since the birth of her first child, and she longs to return one day. “I want to go to my province but my husband doesn’t want to,” she said.
Her husband says he’s thinking of the children’s future. “I want them to have a good education in the city,” he said.
Mr. Chantha has put his foot down: The family is not going anywhere.