PHNOM PENH — Standing knee-deep in dirty water, 60-year-old Men Chhoeuy uses a crowbar to dismantle his small wooden house on the edge of a lake in the Cambodian capital.
He is the latest resident to give up the fight against a private company accused of spewing sand into lakeside homes as it fills in the 130-hectare (320-acre) site to make way for high-rise buildings and shopping centres.
“Many neighbours have already left,” said Men Chhoeuy as he continued his demolition work on the northern edge of Boeung Kak lake, one of the last large open spaces left in Phnom Penh and once home to about 4,000 families.
The sand-pumping has increased significantly in recent weeks and a number of homes were fully immersed in a matter of days, leaving only the tips of roofs sticking out as startled families scrambled to save what belongings they could.
“The message that is being sent to the remaining residents at the lake is that they should accept the compensation being offered to them or else their houses too will be buried in mud,” said David Pred, executive director of Bridges Across Borders Cambodia, a non-governmental organisation.
The government leased the area three years ago to Shukaku Inc., a private developer headed by a ruling party politician, ignoring residents’ existing land claims.
Filling the lake with sand has caused water levels to rise, flooding local dwellings with slurry and creating unsanitary conditions, according to residents and rights groups.
“Shukaku Inc. is forcibly evicting lake residents by pumping sand and mud into their homes,” Rolando Modina, regional director of the international pressure group Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), told AFP.
Land disputes are a major problem in Cambodia.
The communist Khmer Rouge abolished land ownership during its 1975-1979 rule and many legal documents were lost during that time and in the years of civil war that followed.
Last year, the government approved a new law allowing it to seize private property for public development projects, to the dismay of activists.
“Land-grabbing is a cancer that is eating up Cambodia,” said Pred.
“Forced evictions are being driven by rapid speculative investment in the Cambodian real estate market, coupled with endemic corruption and the absence of rule of law,” he added.
“The urban poor are being driven from their homes in Phnom Penh, which is becoming an exclusive domain of the wealthy.”
The capital is undergoing heavy development after projects stalled during the global financial crisis.
In the countryside, meanwhile, farming land has been confiscated on numerous occasions and granted to large developers such as sugar and rubber companies.
In 2009 alone, at least 26 cases of mass evictions displaced approximately 27,000 people across the country, according to a UN report released in September.
“The manner in which land is managed and used by the government for various purposes continues to be a major problem. Land-grabbing by people in positions of power seems to be a common occurrence,” it said.
Shukaku has offered some lake dwellers, though not all, financial compensation of 1,500 to 8,500 US dollars for vacating the site, but critics say the money is not enough.
“I have to accept this money because my home is flooding,” Men Chhoeuy said of the 8,000 US dollars he will split with the three other families who shared his home. “I don’t know where to go now. With this money we can’t do anything.”
People are leaving the lake every day but Pred estimates there are still some 1,500 to 2,000 families remaining, many of whom are poor and have nowhere else to go.
Shukaku, which was granted a 99-year lease for the development project, declined to comment.
“Please talk to the government,” company spokesman Lao Vann told AFP. “We don’t know anything… We are allowed by the state to develop (the area).”
Sok Sambath, the governor of the city’s Daunh Penh district, which includes the lake, described the development as “a good thing” for the area and said residents were accepting compensation.
Many of the people living on and around the lake settled or returned there in the 1980s after the fall of the Khmer Rouge.
Under Cambodian law, a person who has lived somewhere for five years or more without dispute has rights to that land, “but there have been problems in implementing this law properly,” said the UN report.
Lake dwellers have in recent months organised dozens of demonstrations but their protests fell on deaf ears and they were usually quickly dispersed by police.
It’s not just the residents who are complaining. Until recently, the eastern edge of Boeung Kak lake was a popular tourist stretch, with numerous guesthouses and bars lining the shore.
The lake now resembles a large sand dune and has lost its allure. Tourists are staying away and hotels are closing.
“Five months ago this was a bustling, thriving area. Now, it’s dead calm,” said Harry Bongers, who for the last seven years has been running the Simon’s II guesthouse.
“I’ve made my mind up already, I’m going to close in one month,” the 59-year-old Dutchman said. AFP