Michael Batson

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Travelogue

Return to Boeung Kak Lake - 1 December 2015

I recently revisited “lakeside” the area of my first stay in Phnom Penh years ago. The entrance is along Street 93, behind Calmette Hospital off Monivong Boulevard, one of the city’s major thoroughfares. Street 93 is narrow, barely one car-width wide off which run various alley ways. At the entrance is Al-Serkal mosque, Cambodia’s largest. Inaugurated in 2015 by Hun Sen it was privately funded by Dubai money; somewhat fitting then as it borders a sea of sand.
 
Boeung Kak Lake was once a vibrant community, a backpacker ghetto with cheap restaurants and bars and basic rooms for rent. Today, a struggling community is staging a revival on the edge of a desert. Where once fishermen cast their nets and sunsets were viewed over a serene area of aquatic biodiversity, there’s now a barren expanse with ruined houses half-filled with sand, all pumped in.
 
The disappearance of Boeung Kak Lake is as much a symbol of the greed and avarice of Cambodia's ruling elites as it is testament to the indomitable human spirit of its ordinary citizens. This is especially true of some of the least empowered of Cambodian people; its women, who have led the protests at dislocation, and now the resurgence of what remains of this disrupted community.
 
The Boeung Kak fiasco attracted both national and international attention. Hillary Clinton got involved, while the World Bank suspended loans to the Cambodian government. There were high profile incidents like the arrests of lakeside women, some elderly; jailed for ‘obstruction of public officials’ and other trumped up charges, often with no hard evidence.
 
Boeung Kak has long been part of Phnom Penh’s aquatic landscape. In 1925, the French closed it off from a nearby river. Until the 1960s it served as a natural recreation area. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge it became home to local railway staff and refugees. One of its biggest assets was as a natural reservoir during the monsoon, critical in a low lying city prone to flooding. In 1985, some 70 families were relocated to lakeside when their previous residence behind Calmette Hospital became an amusement park. It was after 1993 that refugee populations in the area soared. Plans to build a zoo, and later in 2003, to regenerate the whole area were never implemented.
 
In 2007, the lake and its surrounding area were sacrificed to make way for new commercial and residential areas, planned satellite cities, purportedly for the beautification and development of Phnom Penh. According to journalist Sebastian Strangio, developments like Boeung Kak ‘encapsulates all the pathologies of Hunsenomics’ the so-called eponymous policies of Cambodia’s leader; whereby major projects are ‘initiated at the whim of senior officials and tycoons.’ Often these projects are announced ahead of time, thereby bypassing any consent process, usually conceived in isolation of each other and without thought to the big picture. All part of what commentators refer to as the grab for Cambodia's resources.
 
Boeung Kak had all the usual hallmarks of these shadowy dealings. The lake’s lease was negotiated in secrecy to a company, Shukaku Inc., with no physical address for a sum way below the then market value. The company it turned out was owned by one of the most politically connected and wealthy couples in a country where the political culture is a mesh of patrimonial relationships and all about the amassing of power by self-focussed elites. Shukaku’s owners control Pheapimex, a powerful conglomerate which controls about eight percent of the country’s total land area through controversial logging and economic land concessions. Latterly, they’ve been linked with Beijing-based Sinohydro Corp., which plans to dam the Areng Valley in one of Cambodia’s few remaining pristine natural habitats, the Cardamon Mountains.
 
Boeung Kak encapsulates all Cambodia’s problems of land ownership; corruption, the lack of government transparency, the right to adequate compensation, the right to protection from human rights violations including forced eviction and violence, and a weak judicial system.
 
Much of Cambodia is increasingly afflicted by land conflicts. Since 2000, disputed property rights and evictions in Phnom Penh alone have reportedly affected 10 percent of the city’s population, or about 145,000 people. Outside of the capital between 1989 and 2006, approximately 20 percent of Cambodia’s total land was reallocated as private property. One percent of Cambodia’s population reportedly own as much as one-third of the country’s land.
 
Strangio’s book, Hun Sen’s Cambodia, says ‘after two decades of Hunsenomics, Cambodia's land is concentrated in fewer hands that ever.’ Mostly those hands are connected to the ruling party. In 2012 LICADHO, a local human rights NGO, reported around 3.9 million hectares or 22 percent of Cambodia's total land mass had been granted through ‘economic land concessions’ all long-term leases, mostly as mining concessions and other allotments, covering as much as half of the country’s arable land. LICADHO also claims many of those who have been granted land have been involved in land conflicts and accused of violence and intimidation.
 
A recent academic paper, ‘The Boeung Kak Development Project: For Whom And For What’ highlights the case and land alienation in Cambodia focussing on Boeung Kak,  Despite the establishment of a formal legal regime, land ownership in Cambodia remains tenuous. Because a large number of Cambodians who possess land have not been able to secure land titles, they remain vulnerable to land grabbing and forced eviction as land values continue to soar. In Cambodia, “power, leadership and governance continue to be based on family ties, connections and ‘client’ relationships, without challenge or questioning from the broader population.”
 
To rid themselves of Boeung Kak, Shukaku had sand pumped into the lake 18 hours a day for almost four years (August 2008-April 2012) often forcing water outside the natural contours. Unsurprisingly, an increasing number of houses around Boeung Kak were inundated and became uninhabitable. Some residents had to rent a place to stay or move out, while authorities diverted responsibility to improve the drainage system on to the company, which did nothing.
 
Following international protests, including the World Bank freezing its loans, the authorities did grant a sliver of lakeside to the remaining households in 2011, though even some households within this ‘protected’ area were also later bulldozed. But by then most residents had already moved out, most banished to a designated resettlement area 20kms away, largely to start from scratch. As has often been the case, evictions and relocations cause great difficulty for the already poor and marginalised communities trying to live a decent life.
 
By the time Boeung Kak had been completed filled in 2012, the few remaining residents continued to suffer poor drainage and flooding. By 2014, most remaining households had received land titles, though others were still in limbo being adjudged outside the land-grant zone. After seven-years, the land conflict was still not resolved.
 
But back to the future. Phnom Penh is in the midst of an urban artistic renaissance, a revitalisation of Khmer contemporary music and art culture. There’s Street 178 with its art galleries and Riverside with its open air photographic exhibitions. Contemporary music has taken off the likes of which not seen since the 1960s and early 1970s, when Cambodia was a hotbed of a rich blend of Western Psychedelica, R&B and Motown, all with a Khmer twist.
 
A recent Khmer 440 article noted the importance of the Develop Boeung Kak collective in the city’s artistic revival. The collective is bringing together artists to oversee one of the city’s most vivid transformations, turning the old lakeside district into a ‘lively, safe, and attractive area which focuses on community building, promoting Khmer cultural art forms and providing entertainment.’
 
Boeung Kak recently has been at the centre of several projects focused on artistic expression and community development over several months. Most recently is the creation of an artist run community space called Art House, which was the catalyst for the recent Solidarity Festival. Art House and the other lakeside projects have reportedly had exceptional success in coordinating many of Phnom Penh’s leading musical and artistic talents. Also started are several projects with various groups that work with underprivileged youth or the arts with the aim of making the arts more accessible to local youth.
 
Phnom Penh’s ever growing artistic community have come together in order to help develop the scene as a whole. Significantly, this had not been achieved in Phnom Penh, on any level, until quite recently. The return of Cambodians from overseas in recent years has also exposed the country to fresh external influences and helped younger musicians and artistes branch out from behind the confines of traditional Khmer influences.
 
One Saturday morning I found Daniel, a Brit, complete with a Peaky Blinders cap and a group of Cambodian art students putting their very own touches on the revival of the small Boeung Kak community. Daniel told me he’d been in Cambodia for several years teaching and the class was participating in an effort to beautify Boeung Kak, efforts led he said primarily by the efforts of the local women. He singled out the efforts of the two women running the Simon Art and Bistro. We chatted while watching the efforts of the young artists, putting their mark on a grey concrete wall along an alley way. The alley was near my former haunt, Number 9 Sister Guesthouse. Once it reached over the lake. Now it was gone, a corrugated iron fence separated us from the wasteland of sand.
 
The two women are Marj Arnaud and Ludi Labile, recent arrivals. As well as serving up French home cooking and cocktails, believe they can bring the backpackers back by turning Street 93 into a “street art village”. Ludi is the driving force behind the development project. She’s a no nonsense in-your-face type, passionate and inspiring. Ludi came to Cambodia and got “bitten by the bug” instantly falling in love with the warmth and creativity of the people. For her it is important to help develop and strong community with a united front. “Solidarity” she says “is necessary for us to evolve as a community.”
 
These efforts have included a growing number of residents participating in group clean-ups to rejuvenate the area. The clean-ups were kicked off by Touch Narom, owner of Number 10 Guesthouse, which managed to remain open after the lake was filled in. Local men are slowly joining in, but the initiative is led by the local women like Touch (pronounced “Toosh”). Some businesses are starting to come back like the Sisters II guesthouse and The Blue House guesthouse reopened recently. 
 
The owners of the famous Magic Sponge guesthouse are renovating the building and planning to reopen. A French national is about to open a clothing and cap shop. While other expats are wanting to open shops and maybe a tattoo parlour. Local residents are keen to turn Street 93 “into a cool street, like a creative district.” The villagers reckon they’re are happy to have foreigners from all over the world helping to overcome these difficulties and to have a clean village.
 
While this is positive it’s a far cry from Boeung Kak’s heyday as Phnom Penh’s backpacker area. Before the lake died, the tourists created jobs for hundreds of Khmers working in about 30 guesthouses and assorted restaurants, bars, travel agents, laundries, shops and other businesses. Comparisons back then with Bangkok’s Khao San Road were a stretch at best. Street 93 was only concreted in 2007, a community initiative, and facilities rudimentary. Some of the most basic accommodation I’ve stayed in was at Lakeside. But that’s largely because they were coming from such a low base, and having to fund everything themselves. As a result Boeung Kak has always had a pretty tight community feel to the place.
 
That tight local community, Khmer and expat, have established an association for street art to paint houses in the neighbourhood and the wall that surrounds the former lake. The first painting session kicked off last year with about 10 Cambodian and foreign street artists like Peap Tarr, a Khmer Kiwi and Lisa Mam from Cambodia, and ran for about two months. Tarr is a graffiti artist, muralist, illustrator and artist. Born to a Cambodian mother and a Kiwi father he grew up in New Zealand where he completed his bachelor in graphic design at Auckland University of Technology. He first visited Cambodia in 1990 as a youngster with his mother. Over the years he’d travelled back many times eventually relocating more or less permanently in 2010.
 
For Tarr, painting is a wonderful way to relax and is kind of a fulfillment. His work is intricate, detailed, inspired by his travels and his Khmer roots. Tarr only uses brushes and ink which is completely different from what other graffiti artists do. He thinks Graffiti is very new to Cambodia. He never thought that he would take a career as a street artist. Tarr said he was enthusiastic about the Boeung Kak work, a “cool project” he says, which could also bring needed attention to the poverty in the area.
 
One former local resident, Thann Tong Freng, who owned the Oh My Buddha restaurant in Street 93 for a few years, said he had “Lots of good memories [at Lakeside]. It felt free, you know. I remember times sitting on the floor of a house with people, having some drinks and food and watching the sun go down and the fishermen and the flowers. It was cool,” he said. These days he’s located in Street 172 where the décor is illuminated by strings of lights and framed photos of rural scenes including the pet python of Kandal, but clearly he still misses the days at lakeside.
 
Bringing tourists back to the street off Boeung Kak would be a challenge even though rents were cheaper – there’s still floods every time it rains caused by the sand infill making life there uncomfortable. By developing the street art the community is hoping to we have at the end a colourful art village that people will want to come and visit. There’s no doubt it helps liven up the place and gives a creative spirit to the community. Who knows it may one day even inspire the youth to pursue a career in art or something creative.

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