It’s a vanishing act that would make Harry Houdini stand up and take note, and, if successfully performed, even the late legendary magician would struggle to wrap his head around this trick: Making more than 4,000 families and a body of water the size of 125 football fields disappear?
The Phnom Penh Municipality and a local property development firm in the capital are attempting to do just that with a 133-hectare swath of territory that includes the sizeable Boeng Kak lake.
After years of rumors and false starts, City Hall struck a deal with Shukaku Inc in February 2007 that would allow the reticent firm to fill in the lake and develop the area, sparking concerns by local and international NGOs and rights groups that the development will lead to flooding and mishandled evictions.
According to the $79-million, 99-year lease agreement signed by CPP Municipal Governor Kep Chuktema and Shukaku Inc Director and CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin, the company plans to build a shopping mall, conference hall, entertainment center, hotel, administration building and a “green-colored resort” in the area.
The contract also states that Shukaku is responsible for filling in the lake and compensating the evicted residents through City Hall.
Since the signing, very little information has been provided by the city regarding the development project, and Shukaku has remained silent.
City Hall has claimed that all of the 4,250 families expected to be pushed out by the deal will be given $8,500 in cash or be provided with a home with land title on the lake when the development is complete or at an alternative location in Dangkao district. The municipality has also repeatedly stated that businesses, such as guesthouses and restaurants located in the popular lakeside backpacker area, will somehow be unaffected.
Details, such as when lakeside residents will have to pack their bags or how established businesses won’t be affected by the development, have not been provided by the municipality, despite repeated requests by reporters.
City Hall officials have told reporters the lake is too polluted for its residents to continue living around it and that the development of the Boeng Kak area is essential for the city’s future. The only feasible way to develop the area is to fill in 88 percent of the 90-hectare lake, the municipality has claimed. However, some have argued that better plans have been submitted to the city that would not involve such drastic measures.
In 2003, urban planners from Paris and Venice, Italy, as part of the European Union’s Asia Urbs program, published a four-year study of the capital’s infrastructure entitled “Phnom Penh, at the Dawn of the 21st Century.”
The study included a plan for the city to develop the Boeng Kak lake into a vibrant and environmentally friendly section of Phnom Penh by filling in and selling off a small section of the lake’s north end.
That plan, which also involved providing the 20,000 residents living around the lake with land titles, was rejected by City Hall, who claimed it wasn’t cost effective.
Cambodia’s most renowned architect, Vann Molyvann, has criticized City Hall’s plan for Boeng Kak, saying that it was an unnecessarily expensive project that could lead to increased flooding throughout the city, particularly in Tuol Kok district.
The municipality at the time responded to the criticism by Vann Molyvann—designer of numerous Phnom Penh icons such as the Independence Monument and Olympic Stadium—by accusing him of looking down on the “younger generation.”
Countless attempts to contact Lao Meng Khin or Shukaku representatives have been unsuccessful. In fact, very little is known about the firm that seemingly appeared when the lease was signed.
According to the Boeng Kak lease agreement, Shukaku shares an address with local development giant Pheapimex, which also has Senator Lao Meng Khin as its director. Pheapimex’s headquarters, a large villa on St 51 in Phnom Penh, has long had a permanent detachment of armed military police outside the gate, who have insisted on all previous visits by reporters that nobody is inside.
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].”
Own of the largest Cambodian firms, Pheapimex has had its share of controversial land deals with the government in the past.
Beginning in 2001, donor organizations, NGOs and local villagers bitterly contested a massive 315,000-hectare land concession in Pursat and Kompong Chhnang provinces that the government granted Pheapimex the previous year. That concession alone covered 1.7 percent of all of Cambodia.
The company first tried to clear-cut 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 November 2004 report by the UN Center for Human Rights identified Lao Meng Khin as also being the director of the company Wuzhishan LS Group.
Wuzhishan 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. Environmental groups have also expressed concern that the Wuzhishan concession had expanded beyond its 10,000-hectare limit.
Representatives from Pheapimex have been unreachable by reporters since the Boeng Kak lease was signed.
Regardless of Shukaku’s background, the road to developing the lake has had its fair share of bumps.
In December, shortly after construction of a pipeline that would pump sand from the Tonle Sap river into the lake had been completed, Environment Minister Mok Mareth stood before the National Assembly and stated that it would be illegal to begin filling in Boeng Kak until his ministry had approved an environmental impact assessment. Critics of the development argued that the EIA should have been approved before any lease was signed.
It is difficult to tell whether Mok Mareth’s warning had any effect, or to confirm whether the EIA has been approved as the municipality has recently claimed, but on Aug 26, Shukaku began pumping a sand-and-water mixture into Boeng Kak lake.
Shortly after, the pump shut down with officials saying it needed to be fixed, and as of Thursday it still wasn’t pumping sand.
Apparently shaken by the tangible evidence that the lake would indeed be filled in, the relatively quiet lakeside residents began a series of small protests, not only against the filling of the lake, but against the amount of compensation offered to them to leave. On Tuesday Boeng Kak residents filed a request at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court seeking an injunction to halt the filling of the lake.
Regardless of the protests, environmental concerns, difficulties with the pump and widespread apprehension over how the evictions will be handled, one thing now appears to be certain: Boeng Kak lake is about to vanish for good.
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