Future Uncertain Among Tonle Sap’s Floating Communities

chhnok tru commune, Kompong Chhnang province – The boat that goes with the current, as the Khmer proverb has it, does not run aground.

True enough, Chhan Hoeun says, but he and his people are on­ly treading water. Chhan Hoeun, 51, was born and raised in this floating village on the Ton­le Sap lake, but now that voters have retained him as commune chief, he wants above all else to bring the commune to land.

“From the outside, things look fine,” he said, poring over stacks of paperwork at the light blue commune council office bobbing up and down on the water. “But if we look at the internal conditions, we see they are still poor.”

The people of Chhnok Tru commune—people Chhan Hoeun refers to as “my brothers and sisters”—are pinning their hopes on the rumored development of a port here, which they hope will help them break free from age-old poverty.

“We have to improve our living conditions,” Chhan Hoeun said.

As Chhan Hoeun spoke, the newly elected commune council —CPP members Samrap Phy, Sok Sim, Chhoeun Leng and Hun Sian, Funcinpec member Chim Sangha and Sam Rainsy Party member Than Sarim—all nodded their heads. Although Chhan Hoeun has served as commune chief since 1979, he and his colleagues are still getting used to democracy.

“This is a new thing for our coun­cilors. We are in the first steps. We are all students,” Chhan Hoeun said.

By and large, the councilors say, they get along well.

As it stands, though, the commune council is only a paper ad­ministration. The $135 the government promised the commune for its yearly budget has yet to arrive.

In the meantime, though, the dream of the port is always there.

“If this comes true, the people here will be really happy,” Chhan Hoeun said.

Even hope is optimistic, Asian Development Bank Country Rep­resentative Urooj Malik said. Officials have not even seriously begun to consider the project, which means it is still years away —at best.

“There’s something in the pipe, yes. But it’s only on paper. We haven’t even done a feasibility study yet,” Malik said.

Chhnok Tru has, except for during the Khmer Rouge era, been home to thousands of families, most of whom eke out a living catching fish for half the year so they can buy enough rice to last the rest of the year, Chhan Hoeun said.

Today, the floating commune is home to about 8,000 permanent residents, including a few thousand ethnic Vietnamese, with another couple of thousand who live there part-time, splitting their lives between their home villages and the factories and shops of the bigger towns and cities.

That second group is growing, though. “The young generation is moving out because they need jobs,” Chhan Hoeun said.

All the more reason for moving Chhnok Tru’s people to land.

To be sure, the ability to pick up and float away has its advantages. First of all is the security it provides. The area was a fierce bat­tle site as recently as 1998—the year of the Khmer Rouge’s worst attacks.

And there is a romance and sense of freedom that comes with living in a floating village, Chhan Hoeun said.

“In two days, you may not even be able to find this office,” he said, laughing.

For all of that, though, life on the lake is just not enough anymore, and it’s time the people broke with the current, Chhan Hoeun said.

“They can only work for six months, so they cannot guarantee their livelihoods. The other six months, there are floods, so they can’t catch fish,” he said. “I think after moving, my brothers and sisters will own their own fixed land, their own property, their own property certificates. It will be different from life on the water.”


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