During the current mandate, the issue of forced evictions has proven a contentious one in Phnom Penh, with a number of communities being pushed to the outskirts of the city. However, the coming mandate could potentially see the largest single eviction ever in the capital, with more than 4,000 families living around Boeng Kak lake at risk of being forced from their homes.
In February 2007, City Hall signed a 99-year lease with Shukaku Inc, granting the company the right to fill in the lake and develop 133 hectares of land in the area.
The deal has generated much controversy, but the stances of several Phnom Penh lawmaker candidates from the CPP, SRP, Funcinpec, Human Rights Party and Norodom Ranariddh Party regarding the project varied Tuesday.
During the run-up to the April 2007 commune election, the issue became a hot political item for candidates in Daun Penh’s Srah Chak commune, which was ultimately won by the CPP. Eight months later, construction began on a pipeline to pump sand into the lake.
That same month, Environment Minister Mok Mareth told the National Assembly that it would be illegal to begin filling in Boeng Kak lake until his ministry has been provided with and approves an environmental impact assessment.
Since that time, the issue has been largely untouched by media or rights groups, but Licadho President Kek Galabru said Tuesday that the potential displacement of more than 4,000 families and the unknowns surrounding the municipality’s deal with Shukaku are still “a big concern.”
“We are concerned that if the government allows the filling of the lake without an assessment before, there will be problems,” she said. “This time it will be a huge number; it will be the biggest [eviction] in terms of numbers of people.”
“We are afraid [about what will happen] after the election,” she added.
CPP lawmaker and Phnom Penh candidate Hu Srie said Tuesday that he supports developing Boeng Kak and insisted that residents affected by the filling in of all but 10 hectares of the lake will be given alternative housing or an adequate amount of money.
“The lake is polluted and needs development,” he said, adding that he recently visited with lakeside residents over a period of three days to address their concerns.
Hu Srie said that development is a key CPP issue and those who oppose the Boeng Kak deal are not being honest with voters.
“People don’t believe promises. Let’s wait and see if the doers win or the liars win,” he said.
SRP lawmaker and candidate for Phnom Penh Son Chhay said he strongly opposes the development deal between the municipality and Shukaku, saying it was not transparent and could have dire consequences for local residents.
“We are firmly committed to reject the current deal made by the Phnom Penh governor with [Shukaku Inc] and determined to protect the people around the lake,” he said. “When we have a chance to eliminate or get rid of the agreement, we will issue titles to all families to ensure that [they own] the land they have been living on for many years.”
Muth Channtha, Phnom Penh candidate for the NRP, said he also opposed the deal and argued that it was illegal. According to the Land Law, he noted, state public land, such as lakes, cannot be leased for 99 years.
“We have to nullify the contract,” he said, adding that filling in the lake could increase flooding during the rainy season.
“There is no way to relieve water from Phnom Penh because all the lakes will be filled up with land,” he said.
Despite the scope and high profile of the development plan, Phnom Penh lawmaker candidates for Funcinpec and the HRP said they were either unfamiliar with the issue or did not have enough information to form an opinion at this time.
“I don’t know this issue,” said Funcinpec lawmaker Hong Sun Huot. “I have to see first the plan. But for me the environment is the first priority.”
HRP candidate Keo Remy said he has concerns about the deal, but because the government has kept details secret, he could not say where he stands on the issue.
“If I become a member of Parliament or my party wins the next term, we will study the contract,” he said. “We are in the dark right now. We don’t know anything,” he said.
Municipal Deputy Governor Pa Socheatvong declined to provide details regarding the status of the EIA. He added that the development plan was not an issue to be exploited for votes ahead of the national election.
The president of Shukaku could not be reached for comment.