Three years after development began at Boeng Kak, the lake is now three-quarters gone and the surrounding villages proportionately empty. Renters are long gone, as are those who lived closest to the water. Shops and restaurants unable to break even in the wake of so much lost business have been shuttered. Some families picked up and moved simply because fighting for this much land or that much compensation became too exhausting.
It’s been a long struggle. Since 2007, villagers have found themselves at loggerheads with the government and Shukaku Inc—the development company owned by CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin that was awarded a 99-year-lease to the lake and its surrounding land. In 2008, the company began filling the lake—disgorging sand dredged from the Tonle Sap River and run through pipes nestled below Phnom Penh’s streets. Relocations—both forced and voluntary—became a given, even as villagers fought over compensation schemes and property rights. Occasionally those fights grew violent, as in the case of April’s protest, which ended with a clash between demonstrators and police. Nine women were arrested and several injured, including a 71-year-old woman knocked bloody by police. The most vehement, though, remain undeterred.
Of the roughly 4,000 families who once made up the Boeng Kak villages, 1,000 are left. These are the stalwarts. They dug in. Too wealthy, too poor, too invested to move. Their futures are alternatively promising and precarious. Some live on land definitively set to be spared. Others own homes with a thick white line running through: demarcations of broad boulevards soon to come.
Today, life at Boeng Kak takes a different tack than it once did. Those who used to sleep beneath stilt houses, who used to drift off to the sound of lapping water, find their nights now consumed with the pressing task of bailing water from their homes and stowing a family’s worth of possessions in the rafters.
Others struggle to balance jobs with their de facto second profession—activism. One, a seamstress, only works in the evenings. Her days are now devoted to meetings and campaigning. A vendor closes shop more and more frequently as demonstrations beckon. A mother tries to juggle childcare with protesting.
Unlikely protesters and unlikely compatriots, the residents of Boeng Kak have banded together to preserve what’s left of their daily existence. There are meetings most days and frequent protests in front of City Hall; discussions with NGOs, the media. When it rains, they struggle to cope with the flooding—the lake’s capacity as a natural drainage system long since destroyed. After, there will be visits to doctors over the attendant health issues. All have paid a price as they bind themselves to a life none could have envisioned a few short years ago.
But in the background, there is the unassailable fact of sand edging ever closer, bringing with it the promise of luxury apartments, wide streets, and the end to this life for which all have fought so hard.
Sok Heng, 44
Since they started to develop this lake, business has not been so good. I spend more time protesting. I do my job just at night. Some customers moved away, but they still come here. But some now spend most of their time protesting; they don’t earn as much money as they used to. They used to come here two or three times a year for new garments, now they come just once.
I used to be a garment worker. I quit and started this shop here 10 years ago. I want to live here forever. Even if they call us stubborn people, we have to try our best to demand our rights.
Ang Heng, 49
I bought this house in 1985. It was a small house then, with a palm leaf roof. At first, I just sold sugar cane; when I made enough money, I bought this. Now I don’t have a job, but my husband is a motodop. Right now, his business isn’t so good. Some customers moved away. There used to be a lot of people around here who just rented rooms in houses, they’d go into town for karaoke, to go out, but now it’s quiet.
It’s easier for us to live in the city. It’s close the hospital, close to the school. I often go to the protests, but I have hypertension. When I’m not feeling so well, I send my daughter.
Duong Bophary, 50
Today, the water has subsided, but it’s still at a high level. I want the government to intervene to hold the company responsible for this. We don’t want to have to go again and again to City Hall over this.
When the sky gets dark, we worry about flooding. For the rich people, they’re happy—it’s cool when it rains. But when I look to the sky sometimes tears come out. We’re humans not animals. Even a pig cannot live in sewage water. We’re all going crazy.
Business started going down at the end of 2009. A lot of people, especially the rental families, moved away. I had customers from all of the villages, but most families who lived on the water moved. This development has been bad for us: bad for business, bad for living.
Even though my house isn’t affected [by the development], I have to go out with the others to protest. Sooner or later, we’ll be in the same situation. We’re all in the same boat.
I was knocked unconscious at the [April 21] protest. My husband is a military police officer. He worries about my security but he never bans me; it’s my right to go. My youngest son, he’s 5, begs me not to attend, though.
Men don’t attend the protests, they’re too easy to arrest. Some work for the military police or the government and we’re worried about them being fired. Sometimes I leave my children with a neighbor when I protest, but sometimes I have to bring them. They cry and hold my legs. My youngest speaks a lot, he says ‘the police are very brutal, they’re robbers, they robbed our land.’
Oung Sothy, 63
At first, it was very happy, very fun here. This used to be a stilt house, we could sleep under it, then they filled the area in with sand. To compare before the development with after, it’s as different as the earth from the sky.
This Saturday was the worst flood I’ve seen yet. The water came up to knee height. Yesterday the company came to pump it out, but it came back. The toilet is still blocked. We shit in plastic bags and throw them away over there.
I’ve lived here since the Khmer Rogue fell. My son grew up here. Now he visits and asks ‘why are you still living here?’ But I don’t have enough money, I can’t move.
Interviews have been condensed