1. Built environment
September 8, 2017updated 17 Mar 2022 5:31am

Between 2008 and 2012, a vast lake in Phnom Penh was made to vanish. The resulting protests changed Cambodia

By Darran Anderson

Between 2008 and 2012, a vast lake in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh was made to vanish.  The thriving ecosystem was filled in with sand, and the local community of Boeung Kak, made up of 20,000 people who lived on or around the lake, were displaced.

It is the largest eviction of citizens since the Khmer Rouge emptied the city in 1975. The scale of the engineering involved to reclaim such a vast expanse of water is staggering. Yet what resonates is not how the government and developers achieved such a feat, but rather how the resulting protest movement has profoundly changed Cambodian society.

The now London-based filmmaker Chris Kelly spent six years filming the destruction of Boeung Kak and the impact on its inhabitants. The result is the critically-acclaimed film A Cambodian Spring. The feature documentary has recently been awarded Best Documentary at the Brooklyn Film Festival and the Special Jury Prize at Hot Docs festival in Toronto.

The accolades are a testament not just to his skill and dedication as a filmmaker but the courage of the film’s main characters, the Buddhist monk Venerable Luon Savath and the largely female Boeung Kak protest movement led by Tol Srey Pov and Tep Vanny.

I spent six months with Kelly during the filming, which took us from the capital to sites of extrajudicial killings in the rainforests of the Cardamom Mountains and the farmland of Kratié Province. I caught up with the director at the recent Galway Film Festival to discuss the film and the perils Phnom Penh’s citizens have faced in the name of unrestrained development.

A bulldozer by the lake.

Initially the situation seems a familiar one, mirroring the colossal push towards urbanisation that can be seen right across Asia. “Phnom Penh is seeing this huge wave of humanity coming in from the countryside as it’s relatively prosperous,” Kelly points out. “There’s a lot of abject rural poverty that people are trying to escape so they’re coming into the cities looking for work, away from rice-farming, and invariably they end up renting accommodation in informal urban settlements.”

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The problem, he explains, is that “the land is so valuable these settlements are very quickly pushed out of the city and people are being relocated out onto the fringes. And they attempt to come back in again, resulting in this unsustainable cycle of poverty, exploitation and displacement.”

While forced evictions have been happening across the city, Boeung Kak immediately grabbed the filmmaker’s attention. “I naturally gravitated towards the site because it’s so huge in terms of the number of people that it impacted (4000 families in all), the feat of engineering involved, and how much it was tied up in the shady nepotistic political manoeuvring that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party are famous for.”

Rather than separate the environmental and social sides to the loss of this environment, Kelly shows the two as being intrinsically linked. “The developers dredged sand from the conflux of two of the most powerful rivers in the world with no real idea what effect it would have on the riverbeds of the Tonlé Sap and the Mekong rivers; ecosystems that millions of people’s lives depend on. The Tonlé Sap, for instance, is so powerful that for part of the year, it flows back upstream. They were pumping sand from this vital waterway to fill up Boeung Kak lake.”

Lying largely at sea-level and heavily reliant on agriculture, water plays a large and precarious role in Cambodia’s survival. It is believed that a major reason for the abandonment of the ancient Khmer capital of Angkor Wat for Phnom Penh was due to climate change and drought.

Disrupting the water cycle could have catastrophic long-term effects. Kelly has seen this unfold on a more immediate timescale, “Phnom Penh is historically a city built on reclaimed land, surrounded by lakes and marshland. Boeung Kak was the single largest catchment of rainwater left in the city; a city that ever year faces torrential downpours during rainy season. Since it was filled in, the city has had problems with flooding and sewage issues. Several people have even been electrocuted in the homes that remain around what was once the lake.”

While the shots in A Cambodian Spring capture the terrible beauty of the urban lake’s destruction, Kelly’s focus in the film is always on the individuals involved. “There were floating houses literally on the water. There were people continually ferrying around and fishing on boats. They farmed morning glory there. Around the edges was a vibrant and diverse community. There was everyone from so-called trash-pickers to lawyers living there.

“At the same time,” he goes on, “it’s easy to romanticise the past and cities inevitably change. The community of Boeung Kak have always said they’re not opposed to development but they wanted it to be inclusive, fair and constructive rather than destructive. They accepted change but not the unjust and callous nature of how it unfolded; the short-changing, the demolitions, the repression. That’s at the heart of their campaign. It was never development they opposed; it was the way they were treated.”

The land issue in Cambodia was one fraught by complexities, absences and ambiguities. When the capital fell to the Khmer Rouge, the city’s population, having been swollen to almost 3m by refugees from the war-torn countryside, were forced out. Many ended up working and dying in the killing fields, or escaping to camps across the Thai border.

When the survivors returned, after the Vietnamese invasion, they resettled in the city. During their reign, Pol Pot’s forces had abolished private property and destroyed land titles of ownership.

The protests. 

In the long turbulent years that followed, progress was made as Kelly notes: “Cambodian land titles were set up after the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, and amended in the 2001 Land Law, so they actually have exceptionally good land laws in favour of the individuals who lived there. Some people moved to Boeung Kak lake in the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.”

Those who have had uncontested occupancy for five years or more are entitled to legal ownership. The problem is that the Cambodian government, under the Prime Minister Hun Sen, does not want to follow the law.

“They obfuscate or simply ignore the issues, with impunity. When the World Bank got involved, they created a systematic program, the Land Management and Administration Project (LMAP). In our film, the people you see have lived there for a long time, sometimes decades, and they’ve bought the land legally with the required papers. They have very strong evidence to prove their right to ownership. The government and developers do what they want in the face of this.”

The sense of cronyism that has spread across Cambodia has its focal point at Boeung Kak, where the development has taken place for the benefit of Shukaku Inc. “Its owner is a leading ruling party senator called Lao Meng Khin who holds under his control vast swathes of the country’s landmass and resources. The World Bank hesitated in giving out land titles because it was contentious and the regime took advantage.

“They changed the law, sold the land to Shukaku Inc for $79m for a 99-year lease and yet its estimated value is at least $1bn. They come up with extremely flimsy and speculative projects for eco-cities and business hubs, which amount to nothing.” The likelihood, Kelly predicts, is that they’ll “just sit on the property until the land value increases and then sell it off piece by piece, with very little planning or benefit to the citizens. So even the development side is a fraud.”

At the centre of the issue is the country’s leader Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, who has been in power since 1985. A canny operator, his administrations have nevertheless been dogged for decades with accusations of corruption, land-theft and the assassinations of political opponents and activists.

“Hun Sen is a very sophisticated and intelligent politician” Kelly admits, “but the corruption is endemic. Almost 40 per cent of the country’s budget comes from donor aid. They’re heavily reliant on it but so much is embezzled and disappears. It’s propping up a corrupt kleptocratic government and very little happens to prevent it or to hold them to account.”

Part of this is down to geopolitics – “There’s a kind of proxy issue in terms of the US and their relationship with China feeding through the country,” Kelly notes. “There’s perhaps a willingness to turn a blind eye to illegal activities or the disappearance of aid under supposed accounting incompetence, provided they remain a buffer in wider geopolitical terms.”

The issues however are impossible to ignore. “Environmental campaigners turn up beaten to death in car boots. Grenades have been thrown into opposition rallies. Everyone from monks to activists being gunned down and the cases remaining unsolved or ignored because the regime has brought some semblance of prosperity compared to the horrors of the past.”

In the case of Boeung Kak, the protest movement seeking justice has been almost entirely a female one. They have endured threats, imprisonment and violence. One activist, Khek Chan Raksmey, suffered a miscarriage after being kicked in the stomach by police. A Cambodian Spring documents beatings and arrests. One of the central figures in the film Tep Vanny is currently serving a two-and-a-half-year sentence in prison.

“It’s a women’s movement because they always wanted it to be nonviolent,” Kelly points out “and they recognised it would escalate with men at the forefront. By contrast, the techniques they employ are very creative, intelligent and artistic. The response that male protestors received in the past, as the film shows, was instantly hostile from the police; they stood a good chance of being beaten or killed. In the riots we captured, the police were not hesitant at all to open up with live rounds on men. There’s a reluctance to do so with women at the forefront but they have still been subjected to horrendous treatment.”

The site from above.

Another reason is that the domain they’re fighting for is very much the women’s traditional domain in Cambodia – the home. “It was once a matriarchal society and you still sense that with numerous strong proactive individuals leading the way. They have a presence that’s much more commanding than the men around them.”

A Cambodian Spring weaves the story of the Boeung Kak resistance with that of the ‘multi-media monk’ Venerable Luon Savath. With the Buddhist hierarchy tainted through political influence, the Venerable stands out as an advocate of human rights and what he calls ‘engaged Buddhism’.

This comes at considerable personal risk. “They say he’s inciting people and leading them to protests, that’s genuinely not true; he’s always maintained his integrity. He’s always insisted he’s an observer bearing witness, following the path of Buddha. The pagodas, who oppose him, used to be the moral compass of the country but that’s been lost.”

The Venerable has been subject to numerous death threats, and the film charts the continual risks he faces of defrocking and arrest. “His brother and nephew were shot during land disputes while his meditation teacher was assassinated near a pagoda in the city.”

“He was an artist before all this, painting depictions of the story of Buddha on the walls and ceilings of pagodas around the country.” In Kelly’s mind, Venerable Luon Savath is continuing his calling. “He put down his paint brushes and picked up a camera. To me it’s an extension of his creative mind. He’s a natural filmmaker. He’s always kept that integrity as a monk and a documentarian. He uses social media and live streaming to keep matters transparent, and counter official silence or propaganda.”

The day the exiled opposition politician Sam Rainsy returned to Cambodia in 2013, Kelly notes, there were more than 100,000 people marching through the streets. “It wasn’t even reported on the television news that day. For all its many flaws, social media is a force against authoritarianism, in cases like this. It connects people and they’re able to share information. This ability to bypass official channels, along with the sustained protests, has deeply altered the political landscape of Cambodia.”

In recent weeks, the government has undertaken an authoritarian clampdown in advance of next year’s elections. Hun Sen seems emboldened by the current instability of international diplomacy and the global wave of regressive measures against the press. “It appears as if Hun Sen knows he cannot win this election fairly,” Kelly observes, “so he is doing whatever he can to tip the odds in his favour, and again he can do so with impunity. There isn’t the political will among the many Western institutions that wield influence to prevent him.” 

The government’s actions have been swift and dictatorial: shutting down The Cambodia Daily, arresting the leader of the opposition and accusing him of treason, expelling international NGO’s and their foreign staff, closing down fifteen national radio stations, all in a bid to silence the growing clamour of dissent. While these moves may seem unprecedented in recent times, the situation could escalate further, Kelly argues. “I hope that the elections will be free, fair, transparent and without violence, that the local and foreign journalists and civil society workers will be allowed to do their jobs without threat of intimidation, jail or expulsion and that the ruling party will accept the election results, but I am not holding my breath for any of those things.”

Though the ruling regime remains in power, the changes undergone by the country have nevertheless been startling. “When I first went to Cambodia, people wouldn’t say anything critical of Hun Sen,” Kelly says. “You can even see it near the beginning of the film where people are praying to Hun Sen and his wife as their houses are being bulldozed. And by the end, we have people in the streets chanting ‘Hun Sen step down’. As much as he is still feared, that was unthinkable when I first arrived.” Though it may be cold comfort in a deteriorating situation, there is room for tentative hope, Kelly believes, in the fact that the internet offer alternative routes of information and discourse. “Venerable Luon Sovath live-streams from protests and over one hundred thousand people watch, and those numbers will only grow if things get worse.” 

In the past decade, the skyline of Phnom Penh has been increasingly filled with dazzling half-empty skyscrapers. The extraordinary Khmer modernist buildings of Vann Molyvann are being threatened one by one. The iconic/infamous White Building is to be demolished and the site redeveloped.

It is worth asking, the film strongly implies, for whose benefit is development being undertaken and at whose expense? A Cambodian Spring avoids facile heart-warming or condemnatory answers for a more complex view but the cost is still apparent.

“The whole cityscape is changing.” Kelly observes, “You see vibrant communities full of energy and life and they’re obliterated over time. Families are forced to demolish their own homes. What was once a mosaic is just flattened.

“I kept thinking of Dresden after the war, while filming. You see these lone rooms, walls, toilets sitting in a decimated landscape that’s become a wasteland of rubbish, with the skyscrapers in the background. And, not long ago, there were homes there.”

Darran Anderson is the author of Imaginery Cities.

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