For many Cambodians, the watchword of the last decade has been progress. In economic terms, the last ten years have seen a booming tourism sector and increased investment from China and Korea provide work opportunities and improve the standard of living for millions of Cambodians. In 2006, the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, in spite of its problems, began an important step for the country. The first generation to be born after the Khmer Rouge have begun to enter their 30’s and take up positions of responsibility and authority within their families and communities – and with this new generation are coming new priorities and new ideas for how to move the country forward. Indeed, it would be difficult to deny that recent years have seen Cambodia moving in a positive direction. But progress for some does not mean progress for all, and as any social worker can tell you, never are the disenfranchised more vulnerable than when most of society is doing well.
Such was precisely the case for the Boeng Kak Lake community in Phnom Penh. Until 2008, Boeng Kak was a lake of about a square kilometer located just north of downtown Phnom Penh. The area was home to thousands of Cambodians whose livelihoods were made in and around the lake. In 2007, the Cambodian authorities decided to drain and fill Boeng Kak and sell off the reclaimed land for high-end real estate development. In October 2008, the work began. Local residents were subject to forced, uncompensated or unfairly compensated eviction and were relocated to settlements hours outside the city. In the four years that have passed since, work has progressed slowly, as piece by piece, sections have been demolished and families removed from their homes with little to no warning.
In addition to the corruption involved (land rights were sold to a senator) and the obvious injustice, the project has also received a lot of attention because of the seemingly unnecessary nature of the whole thing. Phnom Penh is not short on land. There are plenty of other places throughout the city, equally close to downtown, that could have become home to high end real estate development. Surely it would have cost less to equitably relocate a small farming community than to fill an entire lake. Why, then, the decision to destroy a natural, geographical formation at high cost to both the community living there and the government itself? With Cambodia’s de-facto one-party system exacting fairly strict control over the press, these obvious questions hardly are asked, let alone answered by the authorities. Those concerned are left to speculate about government motives.
In the last few years, Phnom Penh has seen many cases of its poorer communities being forcibly evicted in government land grabs. The Boeng Kak Lake community has come to represent this all too common phenomenon in a rapidly modernizing Cambodia. While for many the word progress has marked the times, for many others the sandy desert where Boeng Kak once stood has become a symbol of the darker side of that progress – a reminder that if proper steps aren’t taken, that for every person we pull forward, another is yanked back.