Boeung Kak activists fear violence, arrests

Doung Khea lives under a tarp after being evicted from his Boeung Kak Lake home. Photo by Heather Stilwell.

INTRO: After intense pressure from the World Bank, the Cambodian government granted a small plot of land to a thousand families facing eviction from a lake in the center of the capital.

The residents have been fighting a long battle with a government-linked development company that wants the land to build luxury housing.

Already more than 3,000 families have lost their homes and another 100 were excluded from the lastest deal.

Demolition of their homes continues and violence against activists is escalating.

Heather Stilwell reports from Phnom Penh.

On Sept 16, demolition men arrived in tractors to destroy eight of the homes excluded from the Boeung Kak Lake land deal. Lake activist Suong Sophoan stood between them.

“I was born in Boeung Kak, so I must protect my place and these people. I stood in front of the tractors to stop them and to solve this problem with peaceful non-violence. At the same time, I tell them that if you want to destroy these houses, you must destroy me first.”

Police kicked him and beat him with guns. They left him on the ground, unconscious and bloody. Then they destroyed the homes.

Doung Khea lived at the lake for 12 years before the demolition.

He now lives under a blue tarp that reads, “Where is my house?”

Since being evicted, he has reported hearing gunshots at the lake in the evening. He says he and other activists live in fear.

“I am more afraid from day to day. We are worried about the safety in our living places and we always think ‘how can we live like this?’ I always see the people who work for Shukaku Inc. driving with guns around the Boeung Kak Lake in order to make villagers or protestors feels scared to stop the activities. Mostly, I feel worried about dying by their gun.”

More than 3000 families have been evicted since 2007, when company Shukaku Inc. received a 99-year lease for commercial development of the area. The company is run by Cambodian People’s Party Senator Lao Meny Khin.

Director of the Human Rights Task Force, Mr. Sia Phearum, says widespread government corruption allows the development project to continue.

“We can see that in this country it’s called rule of law, but just on paper. In reality, we found that it seems to be the rule of man, corruption in the courts, injustice, and human rights violations. It is the government who always violates the people’s rights.”

Earlier this month, the eight evicted families filed a complaint with the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, seeking around 20 thousand US dollars in compensation from the company, the deputy governor of Daun Penh district and two police officials. The authorities responded by charging five residents with “insulting” and “intimidating” the officials. Under the Cambodian Penal Code, conviction would mean a sentence of at least two years. Phearum says this is typical of the way the Cambodian court system exerts control.

“The court is never effective for the poor or for the less powerful. They just stand with the powerful and the rich. And sometimes they just keep the complaint quiet. You can see that the rich and the powerful, it’s easy to ask for the court to do whatever they want. The poor, the less powerful cannot.”

Still, residents and activists refuse to back down. Even after his beating, Sopoan says he will never stop fighting for the lake residents.

“Sometimes, they try to force me to stop my activities helping villagers, but I say I won’t stop unless you stop harming people and you start respecting the law. But if you still do the same thing, I will sacrifice my life to protect the villagers who live in Boeung Kak.”

Originally aired on Asia Calling, October 14, 2011

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