Cambodia: the Boeung Kak Lake Seven
February 13, 2015, 4:11 am

The ‘Boeung Kak Lake Seven’, as they have come to be known, are a group of seven women land rights activists from the BoeungKak Lake community in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, an area that has been the subject of intense dispute since 2007 when the lake and surrounding land was leased to private development company Shukaku Inc. owned by the ruling party’s Senator Lao Meng Khin. Around 3,500 families were forcefully evicted and those who remained have since faced increasingly severe flooding due to the filling of the lake with sand, exposing them to health risks and damaging their homes and businesses. The seven women have been active campaigners for the community for several years and frequently face judicial harassment and arrest in the course of their advocacy efforts.

Timeline of Boeung Kak Lake dispute

February 2007: Phnom Penh City Hall grants an economic land concession to Shukaku Inc. A 99-year lease costing $79 million is signed for 133 hectares of land containing the lake and nine villages with some 4000 families in residence.

August 2008: The Council of Ministers issues a subdecree reclassifying Boeung Kak from state public land to state private land. Sand is pumped into the lake and the first residents begin their exodus from the lakeside.

September 2008: A local attorney representing 120 lakeside villagers files an injunction to stop the filling of the lake. Phnom Penh Municipal Court denies the request. Water continues to flood homes, making them uninhabitable.

September 2009: The Boeung Kak community with assistance from the Center on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) files a “request for inspection” to the World Bank Inspection Panel regarding the violation of residents’ land rights. The Panel conducts a full investigation and concludes that residents were denied access to a due process of adjudication of their property claims.

October 2010: 50 Boeung Kak Lake protesters gather outside Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital seeking intervention from visiting UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon.A group of armed anti-riot police and administrative police officers launch a violent assault on standing protesters, pushing people to the ground, beating some with walkie-talkies and shocking others with electric batons.

July 2011: Despite uncertainty surrounding remaining Boeung Kak residents, an official ceremony is held to mark the official start of the Boeung Kak Development Project.

August 2011: The World Bank freezes loans to the Cambodian government until a resolution to the dispute can be resolved. The government subsequently signs a sub-decree to grant 12.44 hectares to the remaining households (although over 3,500 or 83.5% of households have already moved out of the area after being coerced into accepting compensation for a fraction of the market value for their homes and land). About 10% of the remaining households are located outside the land-grant zone and are thus excluded from the grant; several of them are bulldozed.

April 2012: Boeung Kak Lake is completely filled with sand. The community continues to stage protests over issues of drainage system improvement, issuance of remaining land titles, the demarcation of the granted land and violence used against protesters. Several arrests are made and violent crackdowns on protesters continue.

January 2014: 631 of the remaining households have received land titles, while 63 more households are still waiting, mainly because of the claim that their houses are located outside of the granted 12.44 hectares.

November 2014: The Boeung Kak Lake Seven are arrested during their peaceful protest about continued flooding in their homes.

April 2015: The seven activists were released by royal pardon.

For more in-depth information on the Boeung Kak Lake dispute visit: http://cambodialpj.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/DCCAM_CLPJ_Kry.pdf

All seven women have their own stories on how they have started this struggle against land grabbing. Amongst them is 34 year-old Tep Vanny, one of the main organizers for the Boeung Kak Lake community’s campaigns. She is very familiar with land disputes having previously lost land to a sugar cane company owned by ruling party Senator Ly Yong Phat.

44 year-old Kong Chantha and her family have lived at Boeung Kak Lake since 2000. She also has previously experienced a land dispute with the military in Preah Vihear province in the north of Cambodia. Thus when the struggle began in Boeung Kak Lake, Chantha knew she has to take immediate action and quickly joined the campaign.

75 year-old Nget Khun is the oldest activist in the Boeung Kak Lake community. Her home floods every year during rainy season due to development operations on the lake. Before joining the campaign, she was the main career for her 88 year-old husband and their three grandchildren. However, she has been arrested and detained many times in the course of her campaigns. The children in particular miss their grandmother because of her arrest.

28 year-old Song Sreyleap is an important organizer for Boeung Kak campaigns, acting as communication officer for the community. She takes her role seriously and always communicates updates, events and other issues related to Boeung Kak with media, NGOs and other friends of the community.

57 year-old Phan Chhunreth has been living in Boeung Kak with her family since 1997. She has been an active campaigner since 2007, and has been arrested and detained three times for her peaceful activism.

39 year-old Po Chorvy has lived in Boeung Kak for about ten years. She is an active community member who helps organise and plan Boeung Kak campaigns. On top of her campaigning she also singlehandedly takes care of her household, her children, grandchildren and godchildren.

56 year-old Nong Sreng has been an active campaigner since the start of the land dispute. Following in his mother’s footsteps, her son is also an active campaigner and attends most Boeung Kak protests. During previous protests, he has been beaten by state security forces and detained in police stations.

Provided by LICADHO

Map of State-involved Land Conflicts in Cambodia, 2000-2014 (provided by LICADHO)

In 2012, five of the Boeung Kak Lake Seven (Nget Khun, Tep Vanny, Song Sreyleap, Kong Chantha and Phan Chhunreth) were arrested and sentenced to 2.5 years’ imprisonment on charges of ‘aggravated rebellion’ and ‘illegal occupation of land’. They spent a month in prison before being released on suspended sentences.

On the 10th November 2014, the Boeung Kak Lake Seven were arrested during a peaceful protest in front of Phnom Penh’s City Hall to draw attention to the repeated flooding of their homes. The activists planted a bed in front of City Hall to protest that their homes had been inundated with fetid water for days, and were demanding that the city clear the surrounding drains immediately. The day following their arrest they were brought to court and convicted under Article 78 of the Traffic Law for obstructing traffic by presiding Judge Mong Mony Saophea. They were each sentenced to a year in prison and given fines the equivalent of 500 US dollars, the maximum sentence allowed by the law.

Land rights in Cambodia

Land rights are a highly controversial issue in Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge regime banned private property in the late 1970s in its effort to establish an agrarian society, destroying scores of land documents in the process. As a result it is estimated that at least two thirds of Cambodians, many of them farmers, lack proper deeds to the property they live on, making claims to land a complicated process. Over the past decade thousands have been forcibly evicted from their homes while others have fallen victim to land-grabbing. According to rights group the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO), by March 2014 over half a million people were affected by state-involved land conflicts.

One of the main sources of dispute is economic land concessions (ELCs), concessions granted by the government to private companies for agro-industrial development. According to data from LICADHO, ELCs covered 2,289,490 hectares by April 2013, which is equivalent to 63.46 % of Cambodia’s arable land. People living on land leased to private entities – including indigenous communities – have been forced out of their localities. Moreover, community consultation and impact assessments are often deficient and kept confidential, if conducted at all, and inadequate compensation and resettlement has compounded the problem.

This has led to a surge in protests from those ousted from their homes and livelihoods like the Boeung Kak Lake community. Frequent peaceful protests end in violence with police using extreme methods of dispersal, including water cannons and physical assault. While Cambodia’s laws on land rights are relatively well developed (for example they provide for a clear and transparent process for dealing with the reclassification of land, for handling disputes and for managing expropriation) there is a severe lack of implementation of these laws. The judiciary is increasingly used to silence communities pushing for more equal development rather than punishing those who commit human rights violations.

Sources:

LICADHO – http://www.licadho-cambodia.org/pressrelease.php?perm=342

IRIN Humanitarian News and Analysis – http://www.irinnews.org/report/97654/analysis-why-land-rights-matter-in-cambodia

The swiftness of their conviction and harsh sentence drew condemnation from human rights organizations around the world. Despite this, further crackdowns on peaceful protesters persisted, with the arrest of three more BoeungKak community activists –Heng Pich, Im Srey Touch and  Phoung Sopheap – and monk Venerable Seung Hai on the 11th November while they took part in a peaceful gathering in front of the court to call for the release of the Boeung Kak Lake Seven. The four were subjected to similar treatment to the original seven activists and were sentenced to one year in prison and fined US$500 after being convicted of obstructing a public official with aggravating circumstances under Article 504 of the Criminal Code.

On the 26th January 2015, in spite of national and international pressure, the Appeal Court upheld the convictions of all eleven activists after a hasty appeal hearing on the 22nd January. In the case of the Boeung Kak Lake Seven, the judges refused to allow the defense to show a video demonstrating that the women only partially blocked the road for a very short period of time and that traffic was able to flow round them. Kong Chantha, Song Sreyleap, Nong Sreng, Po Chorvy and Phan Chhunreth had their sentences marginally reduced to ten months and their fines reduced to $375. On account of her age, Nget Khun’s sentence was reduced to six months and her fine reduced to $250. Tep Vanny’s sentence of one year was upheld; her fine was reduced to $375.

The Boeung Kak Lake Seven were serving their sentences for five months in Prey Sar’s CC2 prison. Phan Chhunreth, who suffers from high blood pressure, has been repeatedly hospitalized since her arrest; her continued incarceration means that she is unable to gain access to adequate medical care.

On 11 April 2015, the Boeung Kak Lake Seven were released by royal pardon. The release of the women comes as part of recent political deals between the ruling and opposition party leaders.

The conviction and imprisonment of the Boeung Kak Lake Seven is one example of the repressive culture of land rights in Cambodia, where laws are used to suppress the rights of the people and curtail their freedoms. Their treatment is indicative of a larger regional trend in which Asian land rights activists are increasingly subject to threats, intimidation, arrest, judicial harassment and violence. This is why human rights defenders like the Boeung Kak Lake Seven need protection and assistance.

For more information about human rights defenders, please see this document, known as the UN Declaration on human rights defenders.