“And the village was deserted, the huts gaped black, rotting, all askew within the fallen enclosures. A calamity had come to it, sure enough. The people had vanished. Mad terror had scattered them, men, women, and children, through the bush, and they had never returned. What became of the hens I don’t know either. I should think the cause of progress got them, anyhow.” – Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness.
On Google Maps, we can examine the grid system of Phnom Penh, laid in place by the French when Cambodia was a colony. In the north of the city, we find, in contrast to the streets and the blue of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers to the right, a curious grey space. This is still marked as Boeng [sic] Kak Lake. Except there is no lake here anymore. It has been made to disappear. And the people who lived there with it. Or so the plan went. This is the story of the people who fought against a government kleptocracy, corporate interests, and a craven judicial system for the simple right to have a home and be treated as human beings. The people who would not disappear.
In 2007, over 4000 families living on the shores of the lake received notification that the area had been leased out for 99 years as prime real estate for development. The lake would be drained and filled in with sand. Their homes would be bulldozed. It would be the largest forced displacement of the population since the Khmer Rouge emptied the city in 1975. Some received compensation, way below even conservative valuations. Many received nothing. In the devastating years of war and occupation, the population had been decimated and scattered. What records existed were largely destroyed. Land titles were a scarcity. A law was set in place in 2001 whereby those who could prove they’d been resident for five continuous years could receive legal claim to their land. This law was ignored by the authorities. Land titles were arbitrarily excluded and compensation denied. Campaigning for their homes against illegal and often violent evictions became the main focus particularly for the women of the area. Their efforts are now documented in A Cambodian Spring [originally The Cause of Progress] by the Irish filmmaker Chris Kelly, an incredibly beautiful, poignant, stirring film.
During my time living there last year, I had the privilege of accompanying Kelly as he partially shot the film and had the honour of meeting many of those whose stories it covers. Kelly has lived in Phnom Penh for 4 years, during which he has come to know the people involved intimately. Through him, I was able to meet the women of Boeung Kak Lake and was treated with a great deal of kindness and good humour by them and their families. Growing up in Northern Ireland, I had seen and been involved in many political protests but the Boeung Kak activists have a bravery that I had rarely seen before. Cambodia, after all, is a country where hand grenades have been casually lobbed into opposition rallies and activists are routinely shot dead by mysterious assailants. The women of Boeung Kak have suffered beatings, humiliations and threats at the hands of the authorities. Following one protest, 25 year old Pov Sreysross suffered a miscarriage having been kicked in the stomach by a member of the security forces. In the face of such brutality, the activists maintained remarkable stoicism, enthusiasm and imagination in their protests, which have embraced and incorporated social media, art, music, prayer and poetry, coming up with increasingly ingenuous examples of peaceful defiance and camaraderie. While I was there, 15 members of the community , almost all of them mothers (and in the case of Nget Khun a 72-year old grandmother) were arrested on trumped up charges of obstruction, defamation and trespassing. They were denied due process and a fair trial and were summarily imprisoned on draconian sentences. They were only released after international condemnation but the threat hangs over them still. The recent politically-motivated arrests of Yorm Bopha and Tim Sakmony , a member of the similarly afflicted community of Borei Keila who have been left to rot living on an unsanitary glorified rubbish dump, have put this into stark focus.
In his film, Chris Kelly has framed the efforts and setbacks of the activists, as well as their personal stories. He also astutely examines the wider political context of land-theft and the cost of development. He explores often-overlooked aspects such as the complicity of the Buddhist hierarchy in isolating Venerable Luon Savath, a monk who rails against land-theft in the face of death threats and attempts to defrock him. Chris has been following the Martin Ennals prize-winning human rights defender since 2009 and his story forms one part of the trilogy that makes up the film. I travelled with Kelly and Venerable Luon Savath to the funeral wake of Chut Wutty, the environmental activist and prominent critic of illegal logging who was murdered by the military on the 26th of April last year. It is all part of the same problem; the land of the Cambodian people being stolen and sold off by the elite to private corporations. Anyone who stands in the way is silenced, violently if necessary. We met Wutty’s family and travelled into the remote rainforests of the Cardamom Mountains where he’d been shot dead, attending a protest and commemoration in his memory. It was clear travelling there that logging is continuing despite government assurances to the contrary. It was also clear, in the midst of the most spectacular landscape imaginable, that a colonisation of the country was taking place with vast dams and mines evident, Steinbeck or Goldrush-esque cities of tents and shacks for itinerant workers and every sign and flag in Chinese rather than Khmer.
On another occasion, I travelled with Kelly and Venerable Luon Savath to the village of Prama in Kratié province where protests by locals at a company land-grab had been ruthlessly repressed. The efforts of those fighting to save their homes had been twisted by the government into a ludicrous plot to secede from the country. They sent in the military who shot a 14 year old girl Heng Chantha dead. Female protestors were stripped, handcuffed and made to stand in the 40 degree heat for hours. Up to 1,000 villagers were evicted from their homes to make way for a rubber plantation operated by Cambodian tycoon Khoun Phirun and the Russian company Kastin. We were stopped by military police who’d cordoned off the area and were refused entry for ‘our safety.’ The news crew, with whom we’d hitched a ride, were understandably nervous given two of their reporters had narrowly escaped being killed alongside Chut Wutty just days earlier, hiding in the rainforest from similarly armed guards. When we returned to the capital, we found that the local Khmer news media, largely monopolised by the ruling CPP regime, had reported nothing of the young girl who’d been killed. She had not only ceased to exist but had ceased to have ever had existed.
I was able to walk around what was once Boeung Kak Lake many times. I was able to witness the most sublime sunsets sitting on the marooned wreckage of a boat and watched candle-lit vigils pass under the high tropical moon to an orchestra of cicadias. I saw the lake from the roof of a tall building, with thunderstorms on the horizon and bats circling above our heads, surveying the outline of what had once been a vast freshwater lake and the home of thousands. Now the children playing ball and the women exercising there at dusk are trespassing on the ground they grew up on, with the omnipresent government buildings on the Confederation De La Russie Boulevard lit up in the background. If that symbolism is not blatant enough, there’s a clue to who is behind the land-grab also on Google Maps. Like a flag planted by an imperial explorer of old, right in the middle of what was once the lake are the words Shukaku Inc. It is a private company headed by Senator Lao Meng Khin, a prominent figure in the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and a right-hand man of the regime’s leader Hun Sen. One of the longest-serving rulers in the world, the ex-Khmer Rouge cadre turned Vietnamese Communist collaborator turned neoliberal Hun Sen is also one of the world’s most astute. To the West, he presents ‘a war on corruption’ and a caring sharing benevolent strongman image. To his cronies as well as to China and Russia, he offers up his country and its people’s resources. In Cambodia, all revenue streams lead to and through Hun Sen and the CPP. His allies and beneficiaries include the multi-millionaires and alleged gangsters running the mobile phone, television, lottery, hotels, banks, construction and electricity networks. Many have a hand in land concessions and the resulting evictions. Stoking up nationalism against Thailand and Vietnam has become a standard and successful electioneering technique by Hun Sen, who sees no contradiction in doing so whilst selling off the country to foreign companies. The map of land-grabbing in the country, compiled by the human rights organisation LICADHO, makes for grim viewing.
The devastating poverty you see everywhere in Cambodia is not slowly dissipating by some trickle-down myth as cheerleaders for the regime suggest. Rather, it is being increasingly successfully hidden. For the first time, it’s just about possible to avoid coming into contact with the real sides of Phnom Penh if you have enough money. You can eat and drink lavishly in French restaurants, visit golden temples, admire the futuristic skyscrapers on the horizon, the dragon’s scales of the Vattanac Capital Tower (home of the newly-founded stock exchange) and the Tron-like banking centre Canadia Tower. You will soon be able to marvel at the financial and commercial district set up where there was once a lake. Some of the Westerners I met there did precisely that; broadcasting about Cambodia’s opportunities for investment (or rather divestment), its miracle of growth and the many building sites that litter the skyline. Like Boeung Kak on the map and in actuality, there are two projected Cambodias coming into being –the unpalatable reality and the more appealing and fictitious spectacle.
There are more selfish reasons for us to support the cause of Boeung Kak. In the West, we have an illusion of history as linear progress, ever upwards like the myth of unending economic growth and with it the faith that denies that bubbles might burst, that empires might fall, that history might be much more cyclical, complex and treacherous than we’d like to think. This leads us to possess a patronising orientalism when viewing the East. China is not on its own unique or divergent route for example but is continually in the process of catching up with us. Following in its slipstream and aided by its natural resources and resilient people, it’s assumed Cambodia will follow. Except this viewpoint is equally illusory. It occurred to me that we may not be looking into the past when viewing Boeung Kak and this ‘East’ but chillingly into the future. This is what occurs when capitalism is unrestrained. This is not where we have come from but rather where we may be led by free-marketeers, by the growing deficit in democracy, by the worship of the markets and it has to be said by the dearth of ideas and energy in what we once called progressives. It stops here or we will face it ourselves. The old ghost of the cry of No Pasarán! is still perceptible to those attuned to it. In Khmer, they call it Sammaki. Solidarity, we used to call it.
Photographs courtesy and copyright of Nicolas Axelrod