Dutch National Harry Bongers opened a guesthouse on the main tourist strip of Boeng Kak lake in 1999, investing more than $30,000 and the next seven years of his life.
“I was one of the first to start a guesthouse on the lake,” the 55-year-old recalled in an interview last week. “When I came here seven years ago it was a dark alley.”
Now Bongers, owner of Simon II Guesthouse, is uncertain whether he has to close his guesthouse and leave.
On Feb 6, the municipality announced that it had granted a 99-year lease for $79 million to little-known firm Shukaku Inc to develop 133 hectares of the lake area encompassing Boeng Kak’s thriving backpacker and residential communities.
The deal will require 4,250 families in Daun Penh district’s Srah Chak commune to move, according to the lease agreement.
Bongers, who has watched the lakeside develop into a booming business community targeting foreign budget travelers, said clearing out the “backpacker” area makes little sense.
“We have an influx of between 300 and 600 tourists coming to the lake everyday,” he said, as a group of backpackers walked past his already full guesthouse.
Although the idea of having to leave the lake and start over somewhere else weighs heavy on Bongers, the lack of information—such as where and when the development will start—has left him feeling helpless.
“People should be provided with information when something is happening to them,” he said.
The lease agreement, signed by Municipal Governor Kep Chuktema and Shukaku Inc Director Lao Meng Khin, states that the company plans to build a shopping mall, conference hall, entertainment center, hotel, university, administration building and a “green colored resort” in the area.
The contract also states that Shukaku Inc is responsible for filling in an unspecified amount of the lake and paying money to the municipality to compensate those evicted.
Kep Chuktema has declined to discuss the deal.
Deputy Municipal Governor Mann Chhoeun said Monday that the businesses along the main tourist strip along Boeng Kak have no need to worry as their businesses won’t have to relocate.
“Who said that they will be moved?” Mann Chhoeun asked. “We will develop the place.”
The municipality and lakeside residents will meet soon to discuss the deal and find suitable solutions for everyone concerned, he said, though he declined to provide a date or details.
“We will talk with all the brothers soon to find the middle way,” he said. “We will negotiate.”
NGOs have raised several concerns about the deal. These include questions about its legality, fears that filling in the lake will cause the city to flood and the possible negative effects on the tourism sector.
The municipality has asked the Resettlement Action Network, a committee of eight land-rights NGOs, to help coordinate between Shukaku Inc, the municipality and the lakeside residents, a spokesman for the NGO said.
Than Rithy, resettlement and housing rights project officer at NGO Forum, which represents RAN, said he has been relentlessly pressing the municipality for information, but has received no details of the deal.
“I think the government isn’t willing to give the information to us and all the affected people,” he said in an interview Monday.
Than Rithy said that he has been passed around by several government officials, including Mann Chhoeun and his fellow Deputy Governor Pa Socheatvong.
“They just like to play games and push the ball around,” Than Rithy claimed.
Pa Socheatvong said Thursday that City Hall doesn’t have to cooperate with any NGOs on the project.
“I don’t have to cooperate with any NGO, but we open the door to any NGO that wants to cooperate,” he said.
SRP leader Sam Rainsy said Sunday that he would lead a large-scale demonstration against City Hall if it evicts people living around Boeng Kak without paying them market price for their land.
Mann Chhoeun said that demonstrations would not scupper the deal.
“We don’t run away from the villagers. We will get people to move forward and let the country develop,” he said. “When we say we will do it, we do it.”
Shukaku’s Lao Meng Khin could not be reached for comment.
A November 2004 report by the UN center for human rights identified Lao Meng Khin as the director of both agro-industry giant Pheapimex and Wuzhishan LS Group.
Wuzhishan has stoked controversy in Mondolkiri province with a vast tree-planting concession. Ethnic minority villagers in the province have previously claimed that the concession has trespassed on their ancestral burial areas and spirit forests.
According to a December 2005 report by UK-based NGO World Rainforest Movement, “Lao Meng Khin is married to the owner of Pheapimex, Chheung Sopheap who is better known as Yeay Phou (grandmother Phou).”
Pheapimex has been involved in another controversial land development deal.
Beginning in 2001, donor organizations, NGOs and local villagers bitterly contested a massive Pheapimex concession in Pursat and Kompong Chhnang provinces. The company first tried to clear-cut land at the concession that year, and protests erupted again in 2004 when it tried for a second time to clear the 315,000-hectare concession area. Police and community leaders announced in June 2005 that Pheapimex had suspended work at the concession.
A man who answered the phone at Pheapimex on Thursday and declined to give his name said he was unaware of the connection between his company and Shukaku Inc. He declined further comment. Chheung Sopheap and other officials at Pheapimex could not be reached for comment.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap confirmed Thursday that Lao Meng Khin is also the director of Wuzhishan LS, adding that the deal to develop the lakeside is in accordance with the law.
“The most important thing is to have people invest,” he said. “[Boeng Kak] needs development.”
But Ho Vandy, president of the Cambodia Association of Travel Agents, expressed concern about the impact the deal could have on tourism.
If millions are invested in developing the lakeside for tourists, prices there will likely become too high for backpackers to afford, he said.
“They will charge more and most of the tourists only pay $4 to $10 per night,” he said.
Ho Vandy added that the hundreds of tourists who visit the Boeng Kak lake every day are fueling the local economy.
“The money from the tourists can develop the area,” he said.
“The government should make a presentation to the land owners. Most have been there since the victory over the Khmer Rouge [in 1979],” he added.
Thong Khon, Tourism Ministry secretary of state, said the project will not negatively affect the tourism sector.
“If the city can develop this area to be a good area it will be good for the tourists, too,” he said.
How the deal will affect those currently catering to the backpackers remains to be seen.
Kong Chanthy, 23, a waitress at the Lazy Gecko, said she was worried about future hardship she would face if the lakeside restaurant was forced to close.
“I am worried about losing my job,” she said, adding that she makes between $2 to $5 a day on tips alone.
Henry Hwang, attorney advisor to the Community Legal Education Center, wrote by e-mail that all lakes are considered state public property.
“The [2001 Land] Law says leasing of state public property cannot exceed 15 years,” he said, alleging that filling in the lake would also be against the law.
“Under law, leasing of state public property must not damage the property,” he wrote. “Moreover, a project that affects the environment in this manner requires an environmental impact assessment, and it’s not clear that one has been made.”
Kek Galabru, president of local rights group Licadho, said her organization is also concerned about the effect filling the lake will have on the city’s sewage system.
“If they don’t think about [filling the lake], dirty water and sewage will come up and it will be a health concern,” she said.
Whether the municipality has considered such concerns is unclear.
Nouv Saroeun, director of the municipal drainage and sewage department, said his department has not performed a study on the impact that filling the lake would have. More senior municipal officials have not provided any details to him on the deal, he added.
“The municipality doesn’t allow us to know about this,” he said.