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Lake Residents Fear Post-Election Evictions

[Editor's note: In the weeks leading into national polls, VOA Khmer will explore a wide number of election issues. The "Election Issues 2008" series will air stories on Tuesday and Wednesday, followed by a related "Hello VOA" guest on Thursday. This is the second in a two-part series examining the development of Phnom Penh's Boeung Kak lake.]

Residents living on and around Phnom Penh's largest lake are at loggerheads with the city over a proposed a development that is pressuring many to take a low government buy-out.

The residents, who mainly live in tiny wooden shanties on the banks of Boeung Kak lake, or on stilts over the water, are asking for market price for their homes, but city officials say the structures are occupying land that already belongs to the municipality.

For now, all is calm, but residents told VOA Khmer recently they worry they will be forcibly evicted after July's general elections.

"We will stand up in a struggle if the authorities use violent eviction against us," said Be Pharum, a 55-year-old resident, as she scrubbed clothes in front of her small, wooden home over the lake. "I think that before the national election, the authorities will not evict us. But after the election, the power will be concentrated in the hands of the current government."

After that, she said, "I believe an eviction will really happen."

"I know this because right now the government wants the vote from the people here," she continued. "So the authorities will do nothing wrong to the people, like in other places. All this history makes us very concerned."

About 8.12 million voters are expected to turn out nationwide in Cambodia's fourth general elections, slated for July 27.

Thearn Phos, 36, whose house juts over the river behind an Islamic mosque, said he was praying to god for help preventing a post-election eviction.

"I fret the authorities will evict and dismantle my house when the election is completed," he said. "I ask the government not to dismantle my house."

Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Pa Socheatvong and Lao Meng Khim, director of the Shukaku, Inc., which has leased the lake area in a $79 million deal, say they have no intention to evict the villagers.

But residents are worried by an established government track record of forced evictions, especially in the cities of Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville and Poipet and the provinces of Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri.

Protesters in the past have been shot dead or wounded in clashes with security forces. Some have been arrested. Some have fled their homes for fear of arrest.

Meanwhile, opposition lawmakers and rights workers have accused the government of delaying compensation to villagers on threatened land, such as Boeung Kak, until after the election, because, they say, it allows the ruling Cambodian People's Party to apply pressure to voters.

Pa Socheatvong denied accusations as "baseless," saying the delay in compensation is not political but technical.

"I believe that the people [really living in the area] don't have to worry, because they will get the government-regulated [land price]," he said. "The municipality does not cheat people. The ruling party cannot commit political suicide on this problem, because we need the votes from the people."

Developer Lao Meng Khim, who is also a CPP senator, told VOA Khmer that the villagers should not worry about compensation.

"We are making a fair business, and we have to pay compensation to the villagers," Lao Meng Khim said. "We won't get their property without paying."

The development of the lake area will likely start in late 2008, after the election, Pa Socheatvong said.