More than 3,000 families have been evicted from the once popular Boeng Kak lake tourist destination since City Hall announced in February 2007 that it had granted developer Shukaku Inc, owned by CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin, a 99-year-lease to develop the 129-hectare area.
After striking the deal, which called for 90 hectares of the lake to be filled in with sand, affected families were offered two choices: Leave and accept a $8,500 cash settlement or take $500 and move to a relocation site on the outskirts of town.
Pich Sunly, a 61-year-old former resident of Boeng Kak’s Village 1, took the once-off $8,500 payment and moved to a 4-by-9-meter plot of land in Dangkao district’s Kraing Thnong commune where she is currently building their house.
“Before, we had a big house. Now, we have a tent,” Ms Sunly said in a recent interview, standing next to the blue tarpaulin that up until last month served as her home. Ms Sunly has since moved to her son’s place next door while she waits for construction to be completed on her home.
The house at Boeng Kak, which she owned and lived in since 1979, was 20 times bigger than where she has moved to and doubled as a restaurant which generated $300 a month in income, she said. For extra income, her husband would sell the pond vegetable morning glory that grew in abundance on the lake.
“I decided to leave because [Shukaku] flooded my house and because they threatened me,” Ms Sunly said.
“They said, ‘If you stay, you’ll get nothing.’ So I had to take the money.”
Now, with nearly 1,000 lakeside residents refusing to leave their condemned homes, and demanding more than City Hall and Shukaku have offered in compensation, Ms Sunly feels betrayed by Shukaku, who told her she had no choice but to move out.
“How can other families be protesting there, and my family was threatened to leave?” she said.
The location of Ms Sunly’s new home, about 30 minutes by motorbike from central Phnom Penh, proved to be at once a blessing and a curse. The location means it’s cheap, since Shukaku’s $8,500 compensation is not enough for a piece of land closer to the city; but it also means that there is no local commerce. Since Ms Sunly and her husband moved here, they have not been able to earn an income.
The high costs of utilities contribute to her financial burden. Unlike her home in Boeng Kak, there is no running water so Ms Sunly spends 100,000 riel, about $25, for a month’s worth of clean water.
As for electricity, it costs three times more than what she was paying at Boeng Kak.
“I feel mentally sick when I think about it, but I can’t stop thinking about it,” Ms Sunly said.
For 45-year-old Ly Seth, who took the $500 that Shukaku offered and moved from Boeng Kak’s Village 4 to the company’s relocation site in Dangkao district’s Choam Chao commune, his new life has proven to be comparably difficult.
His $500 compensation was depleted quickly in order to fix up his new dwelling: He put up a front shelter of wooden planks and blue vinyl to keep heavy rains from whipping in, and then constructed a second level on the 4-by-12-meter house with planks, an effort to create more space for his family of five. Though they have lived in the house since 2009, clean running water was only installed in June.
“I didn’t want to move [from Boeng Kak], but I had no choice,” said Mr Seth, adding that he worried about the mounting violence against Boeng Kak protesters. He did not think that he would get a better option if he had stayed on to fight for his land.
A peaceful protest in April organized by about 200 Boeng Kak lake residents at City Hall turned violent when security forces descended upon them wielding shields and electric batons. A 71-year-old woman was struck in the head by an officer. Rights groups criticized police actions as a “new low.”
What Mr Seth had not anticipated was how difficult it would be to make a living in Choam Chao. As a motorcycle taxi driver, Mr Seth lost many of his customers since he no longer works in the city’s center.
Before, his income was about 30,000 riel a day after paying for gasoline; now Mr Seth said he’s lucky if he makes even 15,000 riel a day now.
But his biggest worry is reserved for his children. His daughter is about to start 10th grade and the road from their house to her school is very far and therefore not safe.
“I am upset about this solution, but I don’t know what to do,” he said.
Many other families who reached out to local housing rights group the Housing Rights Task Force echoed this helplessness.
“We try to encourage feedback but they dare not because they think it is useless,” said Sia Phearum, secretariat director of the task force.
“They think that since they are poor, the government will ignore them.”
Looking back, Ms Sunly said that she had occupied her Boeng Kak land in 1979 after the fall of the Khmer Rouge.
“I can’t believe that when I am old, my life becomes more difficult,” she said. “I just can’t believe it. My home is gone.”