Lakeside construction begins

Khout Sophak Chakrya and Mary Kozlovski, Jul. 12 2011, Phnom Penh Post

CONSTRUCTION on the controversial Boeung Kak lake development officially began yesterday, as residents facing eviction from their lakeside homes held a rally to renew their calls for adequate compensation.

At a ground-breaking cere-mony at the Daun Penh district site yesterday, municipal governor Kep Chuktema ack-nowledged criticisms of the much-maligned project, but said city officials had done nothing wrong.

“I and my civil servants have not done anything contrary to government policy, and if I did wrong, I would not have an opportunity to stand here today,” he said, adding that the project would make Phnom Penh a “pearl city” and the most beautiful in the region.

In 2007, Kep Chuktema granted local developer Shukaku Inc, run by ruling-party senator Lao Meng Khin, a 99-year lease to develop 133 hectares in the Boeung Kak lake area, which is in the process of being filled in.

Shukaku has since set up a joint venture in co-operation with China’s Inner Mongolia Erdos Hung Jun Investment Co.

Thousands of villagers have been forcibly evicted over the past few years to make way for the project, which rights groups say will ultimately displace about 4,000 families.

Some residents have accepted compensation offers from the company and municipal authorities, but more than 1,000 families continue to seek on-site relocation housing.

Yesterday, company staff fired up construction equipment, as officials and company representatives unveiled plans for skyscrapers and housing at the proposed development.

Villagers were absent from yesterday’s ceremony, which was flanked by police and security guards employed by Shukaku. Instead, about 60 residents gathered across what remains of the lake, burning tyres and staging a rally to demand on-site relocation housing.

Last week, City Hall rejected their relocation housing proposal of 4 x 16-metre ground-floor homes for families with “small” plots of land, and two or more such houses for those with “large” plots of land.

Tep Vanny, a lakeside representative and one of two residents arrested last week after a scuffle with police, said yesterday villagers would continue to seek a resolution to the dispute.

“[The] authorities make excuses, accusing foreigners of stirring up my villagers to hide their weakness in settling the issue,” she said.

Lao Vann, deputy director-general of Shukaku and son of Lao Meng Khin, claimed at yesterday’s ceremony that residents had “grabbed” the land they occupy around the lake.

Observers say the problems at the lakeside are symptomatic of a government approach to development that excludes the vast majority of the Cambodian population.

“Cambodian society is becoming … increasingly feudal, with a group of people owning vast tracts of land and a bigger group of people who become landless,” Lao Mong Hay, a political analyst and former researcher with the Asian Human Rights Comm-ission, said yesterday.

“The prospects are not good for the [Boeung Kak] residents unless international organisat-ions, some foreign countries and governments intervene.”

Later yesterday, Kep Chuktema met with representatives from the World Bank at City Hall to discuss resettlement arrangements for the remaining families at the lakeside.

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