Since its inception in 2007, the development of Boeng Kak has invited controversy and criticism from human rights NGOs and residents. Shukaku Inc—the company owned by CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin that was awarded a 99-year lease to the lake and its surrounding land—has slowly carried out evictions of the 4,000 families who make their living in and around Boeng Kak. Today, two weeks after the project’s ground breaking, there remain only a quarter of the former residents. Their well-documented grievances with Shukaku Inc and City Hall remain unresolved, with the on-site compensation agreement coming to a standstill as City Hall measures the land.
But what about the other 3,000 families? Described as the largest mass eviction in Phnom Penh since the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975, their expulsion from Boeng Kak was not quiet or voluntary. Taking either the one-time payment of $8500 or the option of a small apartment in the outskirts of Phnom Penh along with $500, the families found that their problems only got worse after they left. Now, these displaced thousands find it more difficult to make a living while trying to cope daily with the massive departure from their previous lives.
“It was very different from the way we used to live,” said Pich Sunly, a 61-year-old former resident of Village 1 at Boeng Kak lake. “Before, we had a big house. Now, we have a tent.”
The blue tent lying in a heap next to her 4-by-9-meter plot of land in Dangkao district’s Kraing Thnong commune, is a far cry from her former home in Village 1 of Boeng Kak lake. Twenty times bigger, the back of her house was rented out as a restaurant for $300 a month, while she and her husband lived in small area in the front. For extra income, her husband would grow plants on the lake to sell at the market.
“I decided to leave because [the company] flooded my house and because they threatened me,” recalled Ms Sunly. “They said, ‘If you stay, you’ll get nothing.’ So I had to take the money.”
Since they moved to Kraing Thnong, about 20 minutes by motorbike from central Phnom Penh, they have not been able to rake in any income. Shukaku’s $8,500 compensation was not enough for a piece of land closer to the city, so Ms Sunly and her husband settled on the outskirts. Because of the distance and the low volume of people, they find it more difficult to sustain a business—not that they have the space for it. Her son, also evicted from Boeng Kak, currently supports her and her husband, and she said that he goes through a liter of gasoline each day just to get to his job at Kandal market.
The high costs of utilities add on to her financial burden. Unlike her home in Boeng Kak, there is no running water supply, so Ms Sunly spends 100,000 riel, about $25, for a month’s worth of clean water. As for electricity, it costs over three times in Dangkao than her previous bill of 700 riel per kilowatt.
“I really regret leaving the land,” Ms Sunly said several times. “I feel mentally sick when I think about it, but I can’t stop thinking about it.”
For former Boeng Kak residents who decided to get an apartment in Dangkao district along with a small compensation fee, the situation is not better. Housed in a 4-by-12-meter one-room apartment in Choam Chao commune about 30 minutes from Boeng Kak, Ly Seth, 45, previously from Boeng Kak’s Village 4, struggles with his apartment provided by Shukaku. His $500 compensation was depleted quickly in order to fix up his spartan dwellings with a shelter to keep heavy rains from whipping in and a raised wooden level to create more space for his family of five. Though they have lived in the house since 2009, clean running water was only installed a month ago.
Meanwhile, his next-door neighbor, Sieng Nat, 39, who moved into his Dangkao apartment in 2009 from Village 4, has concrete and broken tiles piled in front of his entrance. He started a project last month to raise his floors higher to prevent flooding into the house, but had to give it up temporarily because his income as a motodop driver has dwindled since his move. Now, Mr Nat’s two children have to edge around the rubble of broken ground in order to get inside the “door”—a stuck gate that won’t close and a hanging vinyl sheet.
“I didn’t want to move, but I had no choice,” said Mr Seth. Worried about the mounting violence against protesters, he did not think that he would get a better option if he had stayed.
What he hadn’t anticipated was his difficulty at making a living. As a motodop driver, Mr Seth laments that he’s lost many of his customers since he no longer works near central Phnom Penh. 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. Mr Nat agreed, saying that the most he earns in a day is 10,000 riel.
Besides his income, Mr Seth’s biggest worry is for his children. His daughter is about to start 10th grade and the road to 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’ve reached out to local housing rights NGO Housing Rights Task Force echo this helplessness. “We try to encourage feedback but they dare not because they think it is useless,” Sia Phearum, secretary general of HRTF. “They think that since they are poor, the government will ignore them.”
As for the relocation sites, Mathieu Pellerin, a consultant for human rights NGO Licadho, said that judging from their experience with other displaced communities around Phnom Penh, these environments put up by development companies are sometimes not suited for hosting people.
“They are not dumping people, but it’s on the verge of doing so,” he said.
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.”