The lake where Prak Sophea lives on the outskirts of Phnom Penh is unrecognisable from when she built her stilted shack more than 20 years ago.
Back then, she could barely see the other side of the lake. Now, signs of rapid development are everywhere as bulldozers haul freshly dug earth from the shoreline and signs advertise new boreys, or gated communities.
As the shoreline changes, the 3,200-hectare (8,000-acre) lake is disappearing: every day, dozens of trucks dump big piles of sand into the water, which creep closer to Sophea’s wooden home.
“I have to fight for this house, this land, this shelter for my children,” says Sophea, 43, looking out at the water from her back veranda. “It’s unjust … why do we have no rights to live here?”
Over the past year, Boeng Tamok, the Cambodian capital’s largest remaining freshwater lake, has been parcelled off to government agencies, developers and investors, ranging from a Cambodian pop star to the military to the land minister’s daughter. Hundreds of families who lived on the shore have already been evicted, leaving about 250 families – roughly 1,200 people – facing eviction, according to Phnom Penh urban land rights organisation Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT).
Sophea is the de facto leader of about 100 residents – mostly women – fighting to keep their homes for as long as possible. The group delivers petitions to city hall, stages protests in public parks, marches along the lake’s shrinking shoreline and even faces off against bulldozers nearing their stretch of roadway, documenting their activities on Facebook Live. In 2020, she led a 50-strong group in a march towards the prime minister’s house.
She and other protesters have relegated men to the back of the group, believing that police are less likely to treat women violently. Yet in a country where criticising the government can often lead to jail, the group has attracted scrutiny. Sophea and six others were recently summoned to court for allegedly obstructing a roadway during a protest. “I’m not scared,” she says. “I am a clean citizen.”
Phnom Penh was once home to 26 lakes that provided fishing, fresh water and protection from flooding, and a livelihood for thousands of people. Since the 1990s, however, 16 of the lakes have been filled in for boreys and residential housing, as Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, has pursued a development boom. The remaining 10 have been at least partly filled.
Boeng Tamok was among the last holdouts until the government claimed the area as “state public land” in 2016, paving the way for parts of it to become “state private land” – and ultimately tagged for private development. But the reclassification process is opaque, and 2,152 hectares, or about two-thirds of the lake, have been privatised without input from the public.
Environmentalists, land rights groups and researchers have pointed to the negative consequences of lake-filling, including loss of livelihoods, animal habitats and increased risk of flooding.
“How can they define if the land is no longer used for the public interest, classify it as private state land and then give it to other groups or developers?” says Soeung Saran, director of STT, an NGO, which has led research and community mapping efforts around Boeng Tamok.
“This is a very controversial and unclear line for the public. The public also wishes to know why specific groups of people can get this much or this many hectares of land while other groups are not able to, even though they have been living there for generations,” he says.
Among the longtime residents is Kong Toeur, Sophea’s 58-year-old neighbour, who was accused of “obstruction and incitement” for allegedly blocking a road while protesting in May. It hasn’t stopped her: in a separate incident in mid-October, she discovered that authorities were about to fill in the patch of the lake where she and 10 others fished for daily food. She refused to budge from her fishing boat, stopping the trucks from dumping sand for three days.
But she had to go home to sleep. When she returned, the fishing plot was gone. “You live in air conditioning and have a car,” she says of the officials and developers taking over Boeng Tamok, waving both hands in disgust. “I don’t even have an old bicycle. Why can the rich live here and the poor can’t?”
Officials have repeatedly defended the decision to carve up the lake, with Hun Sen calling critics “jealous” and a land ministry spokesperson arguing at a recent meeting that the lake’s development outweighs its preservation.
Some families have stopped protesting for fear of jail or beatings, and the remaining ones aren’t sure if their efforts will save their homes. Recent petitions to government officials have not led to any progress and none of the women facing court have been told details of possible charges or hearings, Sophea and Toeur say.
Looking out on the water, where the shoreline is clogged with new buildings, Sophea remembers living here two decades ago when her children were small. She would cook lotus roots in a big soup the family ate together sitting on the wooden deck. “I will never forget that,” she says in tears. Living on the lake “was the start of my life”.