Activists Invest in Protests, Betting on Payoffs

Ven Rathavong and Va Sonyka / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
Activists from Boeung Kak neighborhood protest in front of the World Bank’s office in Phnom Penh on Sept. 18, urging the organization to withhold funding to the Cambodian government until they receive compensation they feel is just. (KT Photo: Chor Sokunthea)

PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Members of the capital’s Boeung Kak and Borei Keila communities, forcibly evicted to make way for development schemes, are spending over $30,000 a year on protests and rallies.

Bov Sophea, a Boeung Kak community leader aligned with world famous land rights activist Tep Vanny, said each demonstration costs between 200,000 and 400,000 riels a day, or $50 to $100. In recent years,  displaced residents have held regular protests, some lasting five consecutive days.

“We receive contributions from members, amounting to 1,000 or 2,000 riels per demonstration,” Ms. Sophea told Khmer Times, citing figures that ranged from 25 to 50 cents.

Protesters include Boeung Kak residents, who were forcibly relocated after the Phnom Penh Municipality granted a private firm a contract in 2007 to develop the lakebed and surrounding area. They also include former residents of the Borei Keila neighborhood. They have protested regularly since their forced eviction in 2012 for an upscale housing development. 

Khmer Times calculates the two groups spend at least $30,000 a year on protests, with some demanding land titles to remain in their homes. Others have relocated and demand more money. The amount does not include opportunity costs. Protesters must suspend work to travel to the city center to demonstrate.

Critics accuse land rights activists of squandering money raised on demonstrations, which at times turned violent. They say the money would better spent formulating plans to seek compensation. Critics charge that funds for these protests come from those who claim dire poverty, yet have enough money to spend on rallies.

“I think, maybe there are hidden reasons for them to hold rallies, because their demands do not seem reasonable,” says Phnom Penh City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche.

Sear Nareth, a former resident of Boeung Kak, said: “We’ve spent at least $400 to $500 on protests, which are held at least four times a month.”

Ms. Nareth said she already received $8,000 compensation for her land in Boeung Kak and was living in a new home on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. But, like many others, she continues to join rallies in the city center, demanding more money. For each demonstration, she said she contributes up to 40,000 riels ($10).

She said money collected from the 1,200 involved families goes for transportation, food, water, banners, documents, and bullhorns.

“Contributions come from community members and the amount depends on their financial ability,” Ms. Nareth explained. “Most members are living in very bad conditions. Land titles have been mortgaged, and they cannot afford to send their children to school. So they depend on each other for daily survival.”

Sympathetic individuals have provided funding to support demonstrations, according to Ms. Sophea. 

“Some funds from our Khmer compatriots abroad are transferred directly to us,” she said. She added that sponsors have sent protest representatives abroad to publicize their cause.

“We got sponsors when Tep Vanny received an invitation to make a presentation overseas,” she said, referring to prominent Boeung Kak evictee and land-rights activist. “We would not have had the money to buy her a ticket, if there were no sponsors.”

Donors include rights advocacy groups Licadho, Equitable Cambodia, Community Legal Education Center and Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT). 

Ea Sarom, STT’s acting director, said his NGO regularly channels funds to Boeung Kak evictees to facilitate protests.

“We received some funds from Khmer citizens living overseas who directed them to our NGO in order to allow land-dispute activists to continue their protests,” he said. “So far, we have helped cover the cost of food, transport and banners for each protest.”

Mr. Sarom said his NGO provided assistance to Cambodian land-dispute activists since 2007, but supports only peaceful protests.

“We do not appreciate forced evictions or threats , and these factors encourage us to help them to solve their problem,” he said. “We did not urge them to demonstrate, but if they ask for our help to rally, we will help them.”

Some civil society groups are coordinating disparate protester groups into one cohesive group to petition the government with a single, powerful voice.

Recently, evictees from Boeung Kak Lake and Borei Keila communities  joined other protesters to demand increases in the minimum wage. They also participated in mass demonstrations organized by the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, and been invited as honored guests to Civil Society Organization forums that discuss the country’s political situation.

Despite miserable living conditions, many members of the displaced communities vow to continue protesting. Ms. Nareth said she lived in the Boeung Kak lakeside community since 1990. She argued that the $8,000 compensation she received to purchase a new home is a fraction of her land’s current market value.

“What we demand is a decent home and additional compensation of $20,000 each,” she said.

Mr. Dimanche, the city spokesman, says Boeung Kak is public domain and its residents were squatters. 

“People illegally occupied public land,” he said. “Some people have agreed to be relocated….They had a choice of getting a house or compensation.”

Mr. Dimanche said each family was offered a choice of a four-meter by 18-meter land plot on which they could build a house. He added: “But they demanded compensation to match the value of the land that they had previously occupied illegally.” 

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