By Aun Pheap, The Cambodia Daily, Fri, 27 September 2013
In the past few years, the explosive events at Boeung Kak lake – including violent evictions and arrests – have gone largely unreported outside the Kingdom’s independent media outlets.
But during the past week, things have changed.
Outspoken community representative Tep Vanny has been under attack from her fellow Boeung Kak residents, who have accused her of corruption and even “Pol Pot-like behaviour” – and Cambodia’s televisions stations have taken a sudden interest.
A number of stations, seen as heavily aligned with the government, have been broadcasting frank criticism of Vanny, including lengthy excerpts of a press conference led by her former cellmates in Prey Sar prison, Heng Mom and Tol Srey Pov.
The Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit, too, has been covering the schism – at least from the point of view of Vanny’s critics.
On Saturday, the government website ran a press release from residents including Srey Pov and Mom, along with no fewer than 24 photos of the group speaking to journalists and lodging petitions with foreign embassies.
In the statement, Vanny is accused of inciting violent protests, pocketing donations and ordering evictees to burn themselves for attention.
“Tep Vanny is a selfish woman who regards herself as an authoritarian protest leader and does not concern about the common interest with behaviour like Pol Pot,” the statement says.
Press and Quick Reaction Unit spokesman Tith Sothea was not available for comment yesterday, while Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said he wasn’t able to comment on PQRU matters.
After videos were posted on YouTube of disgruntled Boeung Kak residents accusing Vanny of corruption, the activist called a press conference on Thursday to deny allegations, during which she questioned the news judgment of local television producers.
“Thousands of villagers have been evicted . . . some have been arrested when marching for a solution. But state television and radio stations have not covered these events – nor have private stations,” she said.
Heng Mom said Vanny was “working on behalf of the opposition party and her own benefit, not ours”.
“Vanny always accuses us of selling out to the CPP, but we haven’t,” she said.
The event was held by Vital Voices, an organization established by Clinton in 1997.
Tep Vanny accepted a global leadership award, calling it a sign that the Cambodian struggle for housing and land in the face of forced evictions had earned international recognition.
“I will continue to advocate and struggle until there is a solution,” she told VOA Khmer after the ceremony, which was aimed at raising the profile of a number of women activists internationally.
Tep Vanny has emerged as a prominent leader for former residents of the Boeung Kak lake neighborhood, which was leveled for a massive development project that also filled in the lake. Some 4,000 families have been relocated since 2008, with 61 families still holding out for a small parcel of land on the 133-hectare site.
“The award is very meaningful to the women of Beoung Kak lake and other victims,” Tep Vanny said. “It means their voices have been heard globally. They are supporting us and not allowing us to be isolated.”
Phnom Penh, a city once fabled for its stately colonial buildings and boulevards, and its serene riverside setting, is becoming a city of glaring contrasts.
An economy left in ruins by the years of war and violent revolution in the 1970s and 80s grew at a rate of almost 10% a year from 1998 to 2008. Cheap land, cheap labour and rich natural resources have attracted big inflows of foreign investment, especially from Asian neighbours like China, Vietnam and Thailand. That has ignited a property boom.
For the first time in its history Phnom Penh’s skyline is being pierced by modern high-rise towers, offering new office space and luxury apartments. Land prices are soaring, and developers are constantly seeking out new possibilities for construction.
One area they targeted was the city’s largest lake, Boeng Kak. A company owned by a senator from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, Shukaku, was given a 99-year lease to drain and build on the lake in 2007.
Another was the centre city neighbourhood of Borei Keila, which another politically-connected company, Phanimex, was given the right to develop in 2003.
But there was a problem. People already lived on this land. Like most of Phnom Penh’s residents, they had moved to the city after the fall of the radical Khmer Rouge regime, which had emptied Phnom Penh in 1975, and following the decade of civil war in the 1980s.
They did not have land titles; very few people do in Cambodia, as the Khmer Rouge abolished private property and nearly all documents were destroyed.
So the state claims to own more than 80% of Cambodia’s land. That gives the government the final say over who gets to develop it.
The bulldozers moved in to start demolishing the flimsy houses around Boeng Kak lake in 2008. There have been clashes with local residents ever since. Some have been beaten by riot police as they tried to block the developers, other have been arrested and charged. Many of them are women.
One of them, 31 year-old Tep Vanny, has become the leader of the women who are still protesting against their treatment by the company. A passionate and outspoken mother of two, she and her husband were previously evicted from land they lived on in Kampong Speu province near Phnom Penh, and moved to Boeng Kak in 2004.
Last year she was charged with rebellion and illegally occupying land, and sentenced to two and a half years in prison. She was released on appeal after two months.
“I’ve been detained by the police five times,” she told me in the house next to the drained lake that the women use as a campaign headquarters.
“The last time I was sentenced to jail. This is normal in my country. Before I started this work I thought hard about what I would face, but I knew I could not back down. I had to fight the corrupt officials and the greedy companies which are harming the lives of our people.”
More than 4,000 families were evicted from the area around the lake, which has since been filled with sand. There was no prior consultation, and the World Bank responded by suspending all loans to Cambodia in August 2011.
The government then ordered the company to allocate a small portion of land to some of the evicted families, but there are still more than 60 families who have been excluded.
Tep Vanny and her movement have vowed to keep protesting until all the families have replacement homes. They are also supporting other poor Cambodians who have lost homes to the country’s breakneck development. There are plenty of them.
Tim Sakmony is a 64 year-old grandmother and, like Tep Vanny, she has also spent time in jail.
She lives in Borei Keila, and has led the families protesting against their exclusion from the deal under which Phanimex would be allowed to redevelop the site in return for building 10 apartment blocks for the displaced residents. The company only built eight.
Tim Sakmony was given a six-month sentence for “making a false declaration”, a complaint filed by the owner of Phanimex. She was released after three months, but still cries when she talks about her treatment.
“I went to see the owner of Phanimex, to claim a home for my son, who is disabled and cannot speak for himself. After that I was summoned to court.”
“I thought it was an opportunity to explain about my case. But the judge sentenced me to six months.”
She and her son, a former soldier who bought a small plot of land at Borei Keila, are now living with his 12 year-old twins in the stairwell of one of the completed apartment blocks. The area lies next to a festering rubbish dump.
A few hundred metres away, upmarket apartments are under construction.
Last year the government responded to international pressure over widespread land grabs by politically-connected companies by authorising a project to give land titles to 470,000 people.
But the student volunteers carrying out the project are only allowed to work on uncontested land. That excludes the many thousands of Cambodians who are fighting eviction.
Human rights groups estimate that 700,000 people have been adversely affected by land development, and they say the government and the courts openly side with the developers.
Speaking about the case of Yorm Bopha, another activist who was jailed for three years for protesting against the evictions from Boeng Kak, Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch said this week that “a politically controlled judiciary has targeted a brave woman who has the audacity to challenge powerful interests and people”.
Phak Seangly, Phnom Penh Post, Sep. 10 2012
Borei Keila protesters, including many who live in squalor under staircases at the site, have already been compensated for losing their homes and have no right to demand more, Suy Sophan, the owner of developer Phan Imex, told the Post yesterday.
About 200 supporters from the Borei Keila and Boeung Kak lake communities gathered yesterday, praying at a pagoda nearby Prey Sar prison for the release of the representatives.
Boeung Kak lake’s Yorm Bopha and Tim Sakmony from Borei Keila were arrested in separate incidents last week.
Bopha has been charged with intentional violence, while Sakmony’s charge of making a false declaration in order to secure a flat at Borei Keila for her disabled son followed a complaint from Sophan.
“We have built eight buildings for 1,377 families who have provided the right documents,” the Phan Imex owner said. “The ones who are protesters have been compensated already, but have come to live under the stairs like they have not been compensated so their children can have homes there too.”
Phan Imex agreed in 2003 to construct 10 buildings to house 1,776 families in exchange for villagers’ land.
“Please the god who controls Prey Sar, make the court give these women justice and release them soon,” Borei Keila evictee Pich Lemkhun, 57, said outside the prison yesterday.
Prey Sar security officer Phan Sophun confirmed no protesters had been allowed in to visit Bopha or Sakmony.
Three Borei Keila women summonsed to court last Thursday will continue action against Sophan over their forced eviction on January 3, 40-year-old plantiff Chhum Gnuan said.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the government had not adopted a new strategy for the protesters, despite him having lunch with their representatives on Friday.