For Boeng Tamok Residents, Youth Activists Speak What They Can’t

3 min read
Around 30 young activists rode bicycles on May 19, 2022, around Phnom Penh’s Boeng Tamok calling for a stop to the privatization and filling of the lake. (Hean Rangsey/VOD)
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Muon Rom sat outside her lakeside shack at Phnom Penh’s Boeng Tamok as more than 30 youth activists rode past on bicycles. Surrounded by small houses in a state of disrepair — their bamboo walls and grass roofs worn — her face turned from confusion to pleasant surprise seeing that the group of cyclists were campaigning for the preservation of the lake.

“I’m happy to see it,” Rom said. “For me, I don’t dare to do or say anything. I don’t know when they’ll kick me out — I depend on their land. But I want to see the young generation stand up to fight.”

Rom has lived on the lake for all 50 years of her life, she said. Her family used to fish on the lake, and now she sells drinks and snacks out of a small stall. But Boeng Tamok lake is in the midst of being filled up for development, and metal fences are being built around her, enclosing her from the public road. Eviction is likely to follow.

“For me, if I don’t have this land I will die,” she said.

On Thursday, 33 students and activists rode their bikes around Boeng Tamok hoping to inspire care for the environment and call for the privatization and filling of the lake to stop.

They began at the lake’s southeast corner in light rain and circled Boeng Tamok from the west. A road is under construction that cuts right through the middle of the lake, and the group stopped to watch the heavy equipment dumping sand and digging the earth nearby.

Men Srey Dao, a student from the Royal University of Phnom Penh, said she had never joined an environmental campaign before.

“It feels strange — it’s my first time and I’m excited to join other young people. Although the ride is a little tiring, I wanted to come and see what’s really happening around this lake that I had heard would be lost. I came to see it for myself.”

She was concerned for local residents’ livelihoods, and for the potential for increased flooding once the lake is all landfill.

“I am very worried, especially for the people who live on this lake. And for the people who live across Phnom Penh, if it is wiped out, we will all be affected.”

The bicycle ride continued to the lake’s northwest for lunch, and resumed under bright sunlight around 2 p.m. Returning to the southern shores, the activists spoke to local residents to hear about their experiences. The ride was 35 km in all, and the activists appeared content but tired.

Seang Mouylay, housing rights manager at NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, one of the organizers of the campaign, said the cyclists had hoped to ride on the road cutting through the lake, but it was closed by district security.

The campaign was a chance to show that young people care about the environment and that villagers were in need of help, Mouylay said.

“I ask the government and stakeholders to be transparent about the development of Boeng Tamok Lake and other places because, in the past, many people suffered injustice at government developments.”

Boeng Tamok has been privatized piece by piece over the past couple of years, with plots going to family members of government officials and other connected businesses and individuals. The transfer of state land to private companies has, in the past, frequently led to forced evictions or allegations of inadequate compensation.

Sat Brosty, a fisherman, said on Thursday that he didn’t want to say anything related to the land, because if he raised concerns he may not be permitted to continue to fish in the lake’s dwindling waters. But if the lake disappeared, his family would find it difficult to survive, he said.

“I depend on fishing on this lake. Before, we lived full of happiness, but now we live by fear. We don’t want them to come and stop us from fishing, and you can see that the lake is now being erased. What hope do we have to live?”

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