Stories from Phnom Penh
Sun bleaches this scarred desert-like landscape. Seemingly devoid of life, but I look closer and see lizards scurrying across the sand, and outcrops of saw grass. Behind the Mosque I find a little oasis. The last patch of water on what once was a huge lake. Thousands of families used to live here, it provided sustenance and money. But now it is gone and entire families have been uprooted. Today dilapidated buildings surround the empty lake. There's a baby lying on a dirty mat, her parents are outside rummaging through garbage for recyclables. A man watches me from the first-floor balcony, behind him are murals painted by itinerant street artists.
Boeung Kak used to be the largest wetland area in metropolitan Phnom Penh. The lake and its surrounding areas occupied over 133 hectares and was home to approximately 17,000 people. Controversially, in 2007 it was leased to a shadowy private development company called Shukaku Inc. a company allegedly owned by a member of the ruling government. The entire process of acquiring the land was done with little oversight and transparency, the process was shrouded in mystery. By 2010 90% of the lake had been drained and filled with sand dredged up from the Mekong river. Thousands of families were forcibly evicted, many of whom received inadequate compensation if any at all. For those who fought, some were arrested and detained. Amnesty International called it the largest forced eviction since the Khmer Rouge evacuated Phnom Penh in 1975. For those residents that accepted relocation, many complained of a lack of basic infrastructure and poor soil conditions.
Boeung Kak Lake is illustrative of the unbridled and unchecked growth in Cambodia. Land grabs have become endemic in Cambodia. As the nation develops, unscrupulous developers collude with corrupt government officials to stake out a claim in this new ‘frontierland’. In a country where rule of law is very much a foreign concept, little recourse is available for residents who are out to seek justice and compensation for their land. This is modern Cambodia, a confusing amalgam of systems. On the one hand, it is a Constitutional Monarchy, run by a Communist government implementing an unabashedly free market economy. The pockets of officials are lined with silver, they surround themselves with largesse, all the while the proletariat suffer. This is the reality of Cambodia, there is no ‘trickle down’ effect to speak of.
Phnom Penh is a landscape of concrete and steel, fuelled by foreign investment, and built by an underpaid and undereducated rural workforce. Behind a beautiful French colonial era building I find children carrying building rubble at a demolition site. I ask the foreman whether the children went to school, he assured me they did but I remained sceptical. Poor rural families have no choice but to take their children out of school and send them into the workforce, they become breadwinners.
One night on a ride back home, my taxi driver lamented the state of his country. He described the corruption euphemistically as a ‘family business’. Nepotism and cronyism runs deep through the administration. This system of patronage predates the current regime, in fact ordinary Cambodians are used to it according to my taxi driver.
Back at the lake Panet (16 years old) said to me rather despondently “I don’t have money, because of empty water”. It seems their lives and livelihoods were so intimately intertwined together with the lake. The lake provided them with food and money, but now it is gone along with their hopes and dreams.