Kampong Pluk community nearby Tonle Sap Lake
Kampong Pluk community nearby Tonle Sap Lake

Water in the Tonle Sap Lake seems muddy. From the recent view on the plane, the color of the water in this wide, vast puddle does not look quite pleasant. When boarding a boat at Kampong Pluk community, Siem Reap city, and floating along the canal through the community and Ploey Kom forest, experiencing the sympathetic collaboration between the people and the nature, we could more clearly see the meaning of Cambodian lake. The water’s color is in fact due to the seasonal change. No matter what color, the change incurred by the ecosystem is always meaningful and valuable for the nature.


We, the Thai journalists, were supported by the Communicative Skills Improvement Project to report the investigative news on the borders, collect information around the Cambodian lake and congested areas in Phnom Penh, and to observe the largest Cambodia’s election.


Tonle Sap Lake on the Siem Reap side where we landed has three villages that are Kanot Gombot, Kuak Kadol, and Doey Kahom. Houses in these villages were built on lofty poles, looking like an egret trying to look for fish. The reason for such construction is to avoid flood in the rainy season when it is flooded for only a few days. However, the villagers have adapted themselves to the natural condition to evade possible damages.


Not far from the villages, it is located Ploey Kom forest where hundreds-year-old Luna nut trees grew alongside each other. This is where we saw another beautiful ecosystem.

Udong community: the villagers that were forced to leave Bori Keela slum
Udong community: the villagers that were forced to leave Bori Keela slum


Many households in the village do not do fishing but other relevant businesses instead. This is because during several years the amount of fish in Tonle Sap has dramatically declined. Most of the villagers used small-sized boats and could capture only tiny fish in the amount that could supply their food but not enough for trading. Meanwhile, giant Vietnamese fishing vessels could do fishing substantially in the middle of the lake.


“Before, we could always catch 10-20 kilograms of big fish. But these days we will be happy just to catch one kilogram of fish” Only a few words from a villager on Tonle Sap could explicitly reflect the present condition of the so-called Mekong fish capital. We do not know the true reason behind such decline, but one thing we noticed is that the volume of water is not stable like before, being the obstacle to the fish spawning along the shore. One of the reasons for the unstable volume of water is the dam construction in Mekong River, causing different tidal currents.


Members of the three villages assembled as a network under the support of FACT (Fishery Action Coalition Team) for Tonle Sap Lake watch.


Bori Keela slum, in the center of Phnom Penh
Bori Keela slum, in the center of Phnom Penh

In rainy season, Tonle Sap Lake can expand up to 16,000 square kilometers, linking five provinces of Cambodia together. Each side of this large freshwater river has similar system with different details, but the problem of the villagers is the same; the loss of the fish.


“We ran away from the massacre during Khmer Rouge to here since 1974. We settled here and started doing fishery and farming ever since.” A villager from Kanot Gombot recounted his village’s story, making their place more mysterious than the other villages. Kanot Gombot is not only located away from the shore and only reachable through a canal, but also situated behind a large forest.


“We have long lived with the water and agriculture. Back then, we were very proud to have found this treasure. But now everything has changed. If we still depended on fishing, we could never pay off our debts.”


Years ago, Cambodian government agreed to grant rights of the land around the lake to investors, causing troubles to the fishermen whose criticisms echoed throughout the lake.  Eventually, two years ago, the government decided to abort the project. However, the situation of the local fishermen is still deteriorated; the government, despite the existing law, allowed giant fish vessels equipped with modern tools to haul up all tiny fish, giving no time for them to grow. This kind of violation was practiced as if a normal convention. The government flattered especially the Vietnamese investors as their compatriots joined the Cambodian Liberation War. In contrast, the attitudes of the Cambodian are in the opposite direction with the government.


Political election signs standing as tall as house poles in Kampong Pluk community do not improve the feelings of Tonle Sap people at all. Oftentimes when asked about the election, the villagers avoid answering explicitly their choice of candidate. They would instead show their seven-fingered hand and said, “We never heard of the government policy on the restoration of Tonle Sap Lake.”


To the south of the Lake in Phnom Pehn, the people in congested areas are as suffering as the Tonle Sap people.


Uncle Lam Khun has to use the space under stairs to make a room for himself and his children. The area is full of waste water; still people used old plywood, galvanized sheets, and canvas to make a small room of 2-3 square meters for a family of 4-5 persons.


Uncle Lam Khun is a leader of the community called “Bori Keela”


Bori Keela community is the byproduct of political, economic, and social development in Cambodia. Between 1975-1979, four years of “Khmer Hell” or the reign of Khmer Rouge, all title deeds were burned to follow the intense ideology of the leader. After the expel of Khmer Rouge, Phnom Pehn was in a lawless state, land allocation was unsystematic depending on the decisions of the authorities.


A number of people ran away from the poverty to find a better chance in the capital city. Some took a deserted building as to make their house and gradually moved up to the rooftop and sold the downstairs for the bourgeois. The place has become rooftop slums that could be found nowhere else in the world. In the meantime, a large number of people took vacant land and made shacks for themselves which became shanty town, similar to what is happening in the big cities in developing countries.


In 2003, the villagers led by Uncle Lam Khun filed a petition to Prime Minister Hun Sen  for land rights of 4.6 hectares for 4,000 families of Bori Keela community members. They eventually got 2.6 hectare of land and the rest went to land investors.  The plan to build ten buildings of flat for the people from congested area could not be accomplished; only eight buildings could be finished while the other two, though during the construction, were used for business purpose by land developers. As a result, the other 380 families were left without proper houses, one of which is Uncle Lam Khun’s family.


“Though our names were on the list to move to the flat, we did not have money to bribe those relevant. So, we did not stand a chance to move in. Moreover, as we heard that they did not build all the flats, we were forced to pay more.”, explained Uncle Lam Khun about the present situation. Even though the villagers filed a complaint to several organizations, the collusion of land developers and powerful politicians completely silenced the voice of the villagers.


“Don’t make me say what party I would vote for. We all know what they have treated us like.” Bori Keela people tried to avoid mentioning the leader’s name. Nevertheless, it is widely known that most villagers placed high hopes at Sam Rainsy, the leader of Cambodian National Rescue Party.


“We don’t mind if they didn’t give us anything more, just do what they have promised. The important thing is stopping tearing down our houses and putting us in jail, please. Why do they collect taxes from us but turn to help the foreigners instead?” This is a bitter voice of which the speaker had to conceal his raging feeling.


In the meantime, the other 140 families of Bori Keela people that were not on the list had to face a more cruel fate. On the January 4, 2012, the government forces, including soldiers, police, and municipal police, have collaborated to take the villagers on a truck and drop them off at a vacant land of three hectares, next to Sadek village, Gandal province, 40 kilometers away from Phnom Penh.


“They put us in a big truck. On arrival, all they gave us were a small amount of rice, a bottle of fish sauce, and soy sauce. And they left us putting out tents on our own.”, the villagers exploded their long-kept bitterness.


This new-formed shanty town is called Udon community. The villagers struggle to earn an income on their own such as rice farming laboring. Some could not bear the poverty and ran back to Phnom Penh.


“That most of us did not go back is because we believe that we will be thrown back in a truck and driven here again.” Udon villagers settled here though they were allotted with 20-28 square meters of land for each family.


“If we had a right to vote, we would never vote for people who did this to us. But we cannot vote now because our documents were stolen when we were taken here.”


The voice of minor people echoed throughout the country, from Tonle Sap to shanty towns in Phnom Penh. This is a good answer to why Cambodian People’s Party led by Hun Sen has lost 22 seats in parliament to Cambodian Rescue Party led by Sam Rainsy.


Even though the hope of the poor in Khmer has reached its destination, it does not mean that their hopes are doomed. The full support for the opposition is a strong signal from the minor to the leader that “Nothing is ever the same.”


By Irrawaddy Dolphin 


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