Boeung Tamok is a natural lake on the northwestern outskirts of Phnom Penh and is one of the area’s last remaining lakes . Boeung Tamok spans 3,240 hectares with more than 300 urban poor families living nearby who are at-risk of eviction or loss of their subsistence fishing and lotus farming livelihoods [11, 20]. The lake is also important for flood protection, wastewater treatment, fish, plant, and bird species, and as a natural freshwater reservoir [5, 20].
In recent years, it has been further threatened by government sub-decrees to fill in over 900 hectares of the lake, for urban development without local consultation or consent . 300 of these hectares were given to the Defense Ministry on June 22, 2020 to build a new base, with the rest given to private developers and other ministries . The authorizations violate a 2016 decree declaring the lake as public land and legally not allowed to be sold or leased . However, the government calls the space “empty public land” and thus free for development . Additionally, there are illegal land sales happening with some people buying land from others who did not own it in the first place . Environmental impact assessments, required of all investment projects and state developments, have become hidden from public view. NGO Forum, which unlike other groups had previously been given access to the documents, said the Environment Ministry stopped consulting it about the assessments last year [8, 9].
Lake filling has been a problem in Phnom Penh and the surrounding area since 1990, resulting in 16 of 26 lakes being completely filled and another 10 being partially filled . More about lake filling and violent evictions is available at: https://ejatlas.org/conflict/boeung-kak-lake-evictions-phnom-penh.
Samraong Tboung village residents have petitioned and protested for land titles and residence certifications to be able to build proper homes, but local officials say that the villagers have no legitimate claims to the land despite having lived there for a long time. Moreover, authorities regularly come to demolish villager’s homes when they are out . The development projects also have been destroying critical rainfall reservoirs, causing severe flooding in the city during heavy rains [2, 4].
The lake has been degrading for years owing to the urban encroachment, with more sewage getting pumped into it, and killing the fish. The residents can no longer use the water for bathing or drinking . Furthermore, fish population declines have led to a loss of cultural practices and traditional values among the community as youths can no longer see a future there .
On August 13, 2020, a group of around 30 protestors from environmental rights youth group Khmer Thavarak peacefully demonstrated gathering outside of the municipal court to release and drop charges against lake activist Rong Chhun from the Phnom Penh Correctional Center. The protesters were forcibly dispersed by an elite unit of the security personnel known as “Khan 7 January.” Those who attempted to continue protesting outside the building were beaten and kicked by the security personnel, leaving at least 10 of them injured. Chhoeun Daravy, a founding member of Khmer Thavarak, had been livestreaming the protest from a distance when two plain-clothed officers grabbed and assaulted her, then took her backpack along with her money, ID, and bank cards. She was next pushed into a car and arrested while other officers went to search her house. Meanwhile, Khmer Thavarak founder Hun Vannak and five other members were also captured from the organization’s safehouse in Pur Senchey. Police alleged that the activists were inciting disorder and were charged with conspiracy to commit a felony .
On September 3, 2020, 28-year-old Thun Ratha, 22-year-old Long Kunthea, and 19-year-old Phuong Keorasmey from environmental rights organization Mother Nature Cambodia (MNC) organized a peaceful women’s march with about 30 fellow protestors to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s residence to petition for land rights and call attention to the dangers of filling in Boeung Tamok . Ratha was livestreaming the march as Keoreaksmey and Kunthea hosted a “live show” . However, capital security guards pushed them away and arrested Ratha, Kunthea, and Keorasmey . On October 8, 2020, the Court of Appeal denied bail for Thavrak and Daravy, alleging that it was to prevent the two from committing further crimes. Bail was also denied for Ratha, Kunthea, and Keorasmey . Charges against them were based on their social media posts about the protest march spreading “false information,” inciting crime, and recording without permits. Ministry of Interior started a smear campaign warning the public not to participate in any of MNC’s “illegal activities” .
Throughout 2021 so far, widespread criticism of the government’s grants being given to tycoons with sizable donations to the state as well as government officials’ family members (such as Land Management Minister’s daughter Chea Sophara given lake land for her personal estate or Hun Sen’s wife, brother, son, and daughter all getting land for their businesses). This has led to Hun Sen cancelling some of the land grants while also being openly “tired of the negativity” and “jealous criticism,” saying that “even if you condemn it, we will still do it” [5, 7, 13]. Additionally, the government has agreed to allow construction of a concrete retaining wall to prevent further erosion and preserve some capacity to store rainwater. However, officials state that they will continue to take strict administrative and legal measures against anyone opposing or trying to stop or prevent further development . Local families continue to petition for land titles regardless, explaining that they only need 5 hectares for everyone . They face a similar fate to those from Boeung Kak, who likewise are not getting any compensation despite forced evictions .