By Pav Suy
Phnom Penh, Cambodia, April 1, 2016
More than 300 protesters from about 40 communities affected by land disputes throughout the country launched the Free the Lakes campaign yesterday, marching through the capital to the National Assembly accompanied by monks before submitting a petition to the governing body.
The protesters gathered on a large swathe of sand-filled area that was formerly Boeung Kak lake. Congregating behind the mosque next to the area, they planted lotuses in the ground before beginning a march to the National Assembly. They were stopped briefly by about 50 police officers and Daun Penh district security guards before being allowed to continue on their way.
Rights groups slammed the actions of the police, calling their attempt to stop the march politically motivated. They cited the large rallies held this week by a group of students chiding opposition leader Kem Sokha as evidence that the government only stops protests that criticize their actions. The students were allowed to parade through the streets with faux CNRP banners and had almost no reaction from police, while security officials tried to shut down the housing rights protest before it arrived at the National Assembly.
Nay Vanda, a senior monitor at Adhoc, said: “It is a double-standard when compared with Srey Chamroeun leading the rally with traffic facilitation by the police and no hurdles from the authorities.”
Tep Vanny, one of the many representatives of the protesters who spoke during the rally, said the purpose of the campaign was to raise public awareness on the impacts of lake-filling and also to ask the government to carefully consider the repercussions of doing so.
“Our campaign is to demand the government stop filling lakes everywhere because there are no benefits at all from filling lakes, to the citizens or the nation,” he said.
“Only a few individuals and powerful and wealthy groups benefit from people’s suffering almost everywhere.”
Boeung Kak lake was filled in to make way for a high-end housing development by Shukaku Inc. in 2007.
The group blames City Hall, under the leadership of current city governor Pa Socheatevong, as well as former governor Kep Chuktema for the lake being filled in.
City Hall Spokesman Long Dimanche could not be reached for comment yesterday.
“We feel very sorry to lose the lakes in Phnom Penh. While other countries are even creating more lakes such as in Vietnam’s Hanoi and Myanmar’s Yangon, we are doing the opposite,” said Ee Saron, Executive Director of Sahmakum Teang Tnaut.
“According to our study, in Phnom Penh, there are 25 lakes that have completely been filled and are being filled, among them Boeung Tumpon and Boeung Trabek,” he said. “In the long run, there will be no more lakes if there is no action from the government. We will lose our identity left by our ancestors.”
On Monday, the Ministry of Water Resources issued an announcement appealing for an end to the filling of natural lakes in Cambodia, citing frequent disputes and migrations forced by the operations as reason for their opposition.
“What is noticeable is that the movements and disputes arising from the filling of natural lakes by a number of individuals have happened constantly. In this sense, the Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology would like to appeal. Please have consideration of all aspects [before filling lakes] because conservation has to be linked to development,” the statement read.
“Please be far-sighted because the climate conditions have tremendously changed.”
The protesters marched through Phnom Penh to the National Assembly where they submitted a petition. KTs/Mai Vireak