Some years ago, departing on a flight to Bangkok, I took this picture – a historic reminder of something that is no more. The struggle of the residents around the lake has been regularly reported, their claim that – according to Cambodian land laws – people who have been in uncontested residence for a certain number of years can apply for land registration: the procedure for land registrations had been financially supported formerly by the World Bank – until the Cambodian government canceled the relevant contract with the World Bank after senior management of the bank had questioned the way in which this program was implemented – excluding the residents around the lake. Then there were adjustments – the Prime Minister decreed that a certain piece of land should be made available for re-development at-the-site for some residents (after others had accepted re-location to a far away site without a school for their children, and without easy access to participate in the informal sector of the economy, including short term employment in the capital city). Some families, still threatened by relocation, have excluded from his scheme for procedural reasons which the victims did not understand in time.
During a visit in March 2011 I had seen some of the destruction, but there did not seem to be immediate physical danger for the people still in some of the houses – though the flooding of some other houses had forced their inhabitants to flee, loosing their properties.
I will not try to document the continuing legal and the related police battles here. I just want to show some of the physical features of what is happening to replace the lake, to make place for more high rise buildings, while other construction sites in town are either partly finished but idle, because the finances foreseen to complete them are no longer available, or they are completed but find hardly enough renters to fill this new space – and pay for it.
Sand and mud from the Mekong river is either pumped directly through a long pipe system into the lake, or it is first transported by barges to take the same final destination.
At the end, the landfill is pumped into the former lake – by now the remaining water level is higher than many of the remaining houses – and the lake is “secured” by a wall of soft mud and sand.
The most scary point I saw was a small piece of “dam,” made of mud and garbage, where the water level is already reaching it’s upper rim. Fortunately, the rainy season seems to be over – otherwise a heavy downpour, or a dog digging for something, might suddenly open an outlet, and the flowing water might trigger a flood, quickly inundating many houses still inhabited.
Talking to many people in Phnom Penh about the city losing its lake, and the people around losing their homes and livelihood, I am time and again surprised that many people do now know much about what is going on just right behind Calmette Hospital, the largest medical care facility in town. The authorities have provided a place where those who consider themselves to be victims can “legally” make their problems public at the “Democratic Corner” or “Freedom Park.”
As Boeng Kak Lake area residents realize that their calls for attention by demonstrating at the “Freedom Park” neither receive much attention from the authorities, nor do they attract much solidarity from many residents in town, the value of such a specially designated place for demonstrations is more and more doubted. After the ribbon-cutting to open the “Freedom Part,” representatives of the authorities to whom the voices of the demonstrators are directed, are no more there. Efforts by victimized people to bring their concerns instead directly to the City Hall of Phnom Penh to get personal attention, led to violent confrontations with the police.
While such efforts, to have human communication going on, have not progressed well, machinery seems to have replaced dialogue: the pumps are running.