‘Aggravated rebellion’ over Cambodia’s Boeung Kak Lake

The community protesting during the 33-day campaign for the freedom of the BKL 15. Photo by Sahmakum Teang Tnaut.

A lesson learnt: one does not simply Skype activists in Cambodia. First, there were connection problems, then video problems, then audio feedback problems, but we finally got it working. After all, the struggle against Internet bandwidth is nothing compared to the struggle that activists Ee Sarom and Tep Vanny have been involved in at Boeung Kak Lake.

This 90-hectare lake in Cambodia’s capital of Phonm Penh used to be a lush open space. But, in 2007, the Cambodian government signed a 99-year lease with Shukaku Inc. and began to reclassify the public land as private land for development without consultation with the community that calls Boeung Kak Lake home.

When the Khmer Rouge was in power from 1975 to 1979, people were evicted from their homes. Their land titles and records were destroyed, and everything was declared as property of the state. When the regime collapsed, Cambodians tried to pick up the pieces as best they could, settling down and rebuilding their homes. The lack of documentation, though, has made such people particularly vulnerable to land grabs and evictions.

Recognizing this problem, the Cambodian government declared in 2001 that people would be eligible for land titles to their property if they could prove that they had been living there for at least five years. The move was supported by the World Bank, which loaned Cambodia up to $70 million a year to facilitate the program. The people of Boeung Kak Lake, though, were left out, and the land was leased.

“The authorities only offered $8,500 as compensation for us to move away, or we could be given a new house. But the new house is 25 kilometers outside of Phnom Penh, with very poor infrastructure. It is far away from schools and work,” explains Tep Vanny, a resident of Boeung Kak Lake. “No one wanted to move away but villagers were threatened by the use of force and sand was pumped into our homes. Men with rifles came to my house and threatened us. They wanted us to move out in a week’s time.”

In August 2011, the World Bank announced that they had failed in securing titles for the residents of Boeung Kak Lake and therefore would not resume lending money to Cambodia until an agreement between the government and the residents could be reached. In response, President Hun Sen promised that 12.44 hectares would be given to the community at the lake, and that the families would have titles to the land. However, the land was never clearly demarcated, and around 90 families were left without titles. Many of the titles that were given are also in dispute, with allegations of corruption.

Shukaku Inc., which a BBC report pointed out is “owned by a senator from the governing Cambodian People’s Party,” began pumping sand into the lake in 2008, turning what was once a green, lively tourist attraction into a brown pond prone to flooding. The community, though, is not giving up without a fight.

Things came to a head on May 22 of this year, when villagers who had been evicted returned to Boeung Kak Lake. They tried to demarcate the land where their demolished homes used to stand, and to rebuild. Tep Vanny and many other community members hurried over to support their fellow villagers, gathering peacefully and singing songs, while local authorities attempted to intimidate the crowd with threats. The situation escalated and riot police, security personnel and hired thugs were called in. At 11 a.m., the police clamped down and arrested 13 women, including Vanny and a 72-year-old woman.

The 13 women were convicted two days later of illegally occupying the land, in a trial which drew much criticism from protesters and human rights groups, both within and outside Cambodia. “There was a lack of due process,” Vanny says. “The summons came right after our arrest. The court rejected our lawyers’ demand for evidence and time to prepare defense. The prosecution just went ahead and it was rushed through. Our three lawyers had to walk out of the court room because there was nothing they could do.”

Ee Sarom from Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, an NGO that works with the urban poor in Cambodia, adds:

There were 100 military police inside the court building. About 1,000 police officers from different departments, including plainclothes police and female officers, blocked 100 protesters, right before the eyes of human rights defenders.

The municipal court handed down a two-and-a-half-year jail sentence. Another woman and a man were later arrested and charged with the same crime, turning the group into the BKL 15. The decision of the court launched a 33-day campaign by supporters who gathered outside the Prey Sar prison to protest the treatment of the BKL 15. Petitions were delivered to King Norodom Sihamoni of Cambodia and National Assembly President Heng Samring, calling for their release and the resolution of the land dispute. Human rights groups such as the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch also spoke out against the government and court’s actions with regard to the land rights issue and the arrest and conviction of the BKL 15. The case, strongly pushed by advocates and activists, attracted the attention of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who urged the Cambodian government to release the BKL 15.

Vanny describes her experience:

Conditions were bad in prison. We were split up into different rooms, but there were already 60 to 70 women in a room 5 by 15 meters long. There was a lack of sanitation and hygiene, and the water and food were bad. People were smoking all the time. Most of the prisoners in my cell had been charged for criminal offenses like murder and robbery.

Tep Vanny upon her release from jail. By Sahmakum Teang Tnaut.

On June 27, the Cambodian appeals court upheld the convictions of the BKL 15 for “aggravated rebellion and illegal occupation of land.” However, the sentence was reduced to one month and three days — time already served. They were all released.

“I am concerned about my activities; I may be arrested. The case has not been dismissed,” Vanny says. However, the case has not stopped her from continuing in the struggle. Her lawyer has appealed to the Supreme Court to have the case thrown out, but Vanny and the rest of the BKL 15 are already back to work. Two weeks after their release, they submitted petitions to the Australian, French, United Kingdom and United States embassies. They have four major goals: 1) to demarcate the boundary of the 12.44 hectares given by the government and to publish the result, 2) to include the families who are currently excluded, 3) to dismiss Shukaku Inc.’s claim on the 12.44 hectares and 4) to get the charges against all 15 people fully dropped.

Activists also plan on reaching out to President Barack Obama, who is scheduled to visit Cambodia later in the year for the ASEAN Summit. “We need the voices of the international community to use their leverage,” says Sarom. “The Cambodian government will do anything to please Obama. If he says something, Hun Sen will do it.”

“I will not give up, I will continue my struggle,” says Vanny. “If I lose my house, I lose my land and my life.”

[Correction: The article has been changed to reflect that the BKL 15 were not all women, as it originally indicated, but included one man.]

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