One day last week, Pen Bun Noeun watched as her wooden house on Boeung Kak lake in Phnom Penh was dismantled by workers she had hired for its removal.
With the lake’s developer Shukaku, Inc., pumping fill into the lake, its polluted water was rising and her situation had become untenable, she said. She was opting to move outside of the city, to a development in Dangkao district called Borei Santepheap 2.
“It’s far, but what can I do?” she said, as her neighbors sloshed through the muck or sat on chairs and tables to avoid the rising water. “I cannot stay here because it is flooded. Too much flooding and a bad smell. There was no flooding before the dredging. It is now flooded all over.”
Plagued with mosquitoes, putrid mud and rising waters, hundreds of residents of the lake say they are voluntarily moving, taking a buyout or move offers from the city. But critics say developers are filling the lake, forcing the water to rise, and that the moves are not voluntary at all.
Many residents in recent interviews told VOA Khmer they would now prefer to take a controversial buy-out, despite protests in the past that the market value of their homes was much higher than the $8,000 offered by the city. Others said the offer to relocate to an apartment on the outskirts of the capital, though far from services, was better than living in the quagmire their neighborhood has become.
The “volunteer” exodus starkly differs from displacements under past city projects. In 2006, the government faced sharp criticism for its ejection of impoverished residents of neighborhoods on the Tonle Bassac, where police forced people from the area at gunpoint in the early morning as bulldozers leveled their homes.
Pen Bun Noeun’s uncle, who declined to be named, said the situation “only looks better” for people at Boeung Kak than those who were forced from developments like the communities of Sambok Chap, or Sparrow’s Nest, and nearby Kak Ampov, or Sugarcane Leavings, on the Tonle Bassac.
The authorities “didn’t force us to leave clumsily, didn’t surround us with fencing,” he said. “It looks better than there. They didn’t force us, but [we move] voluntarily. They haven’t mistreated us yet.”
The uncle had already been forced to remove his house as the flood waters rose, he said, calling this a “strategy” of the developers and the city.
“If we don’t go now, we will go later,” he said. “To go now is better. If we go last, we could be sent 20 or 30 kilometers from where we are to be moved to now. It would be damning.”
“They didn’t force us,” he said with sarcasm, “but we must go.”
The 133-hectare, $79 million development was undertaken by Shikaku under a 99-year lease with the city. Plans include the construction of businesses and homes, centers for trade, culture and tourism, and increased security. Residents have been loath to go, however, and staged a protest in September when Shikaku began filling in the lake.
The halt was only temporary, however, and shortly after Shukaku resumed filling the lake.
Ny Chakrya, chief of the monitoring section for the rights group Adhoc, said the displacement was similar to those along the Tonle Bassac, except residents here were being forced out by floodwater and not gunpoint.
“It is not a principle of volunteering,” he said. “Volunteer removal means a negotiation in which neither side was put under pressure of any kind. Once one side acted to put another side aside; with no choice, it becomes a non-voluntary agreement. If it was to be a voluntary agreement from the people, [authorities] should not have created an impact on the daily living conditions of the people.”
Resident Neth Sophana and her family said they were being forced to leave under a “volunteer principle” espoused by Phnom Penh authorities and Shukaku.
“It is right to say either: we volunteered or were forced, because the company dredged to flood us,” she said. “We must leave. How can we stay? Speaking frankly they’re driving us away.”
Mann Chhoeun, deputy governor of Phnom Penh, maintains that the more than 500 families who have now agreed to leave the area did so willingly and have thumb-printed documents attesting to that.
“It moving ahead now,” he said. “It looks good, and they have printed their thumbs on proper volunteer documents. They were not forced.”
Those who opted for an apartment at Borei Santepheap 2 would find a school and market at the new location, he said, and the government continued to negotiate with families still living around the lake.
“We will solve it step by step and avoid violence with people,” he said. “We will have a good result before long.”
Despite floodwater creeping into her house, forcing her to build small wooden walkways through the living room, resident Houth Srin said she would wait for a better offer. Borei Santepheap 2 was too far from services, she said, and the itchy feet caused by the dirty water was a small price to pay to hold out.
Meanwhile, she said, people who owned smaller houses were being separated from those with large houses by the city’s buyout plans. Those with small houses could take the money, but those with larger houses, like hers, would wait. That meant a unity of voice against the displacement was divided, she said.
“Owners of small houses didn’t go to protest,” she said. “Only residents in big houses.”
Others, like Reoun Sovannara, were ready to leave.
“We volunteered to go because we have no way to live here,” he said. “It’s flooded. They’ve dredged to flood us, so why should we stay?”