In the past decade, Cambodia has gained a notorious reputation for large-scale forced evictions. But fishing communities living on the waterways face even more dire prospects. Joanna Mayhew reports from Phnom Penh.
Aboard a rickety wooden vessel on the Tonle Sap River, Mohamed Karime raises his long white fishing net from the murky water, scoops out a handful of palm-sized fish, and, with a fluid motion, tosses them into an old cooler.
This waterway, which runs through Cambodia's capital city, has changed little during the 30 years Karime has fished in it. But beyond the river's steep banks, the landscape has transformed dramatically, with paved roads, shopping centers and high-rise condos. At the tip of the Chroy Changvar peninsula, where the Tonle Sap meets the Mekong River, the recently completed five-star, $100-million Sokha Hotel is emblematic of this makeover.
Yet in the hotel's shadow, where Karime and his desperately poor community moor their boats, a different storyline exists to the country's changes. The 200-family community of Cham Muslims who live on these narrow boats survive on small-scale fishing, earning on average $10-$15 daily per family.
Since 1979, most of them have lived on the peninsula, where - similar to their land-dwelling neighbours - they can vote, attend mosques and send their children to local schools. But three years ago, they were uprooted without warning by authorities and, community members say, forced at gunpoint to desert their long-standing base.
Now, after establishing routines and a makeshift mosque in their new home at the rivers' confluence, they are once again under threat of being moved, as ominous rumours abound ahead of more development slated for the peninsula.
"It's miserable," says Karime, a 42-year-old father of four. "We have no security, no stability."
Cambodia has an alarming record when it comes to forced evictions and land grabs, around which some of its worst human rights abuses have taken place. Last year, respected human rights non-profit LICADHO said more than 500,000 people had been affected by land conflicts since 2000 in which the state has had some degree of involvement.
Another group, land rights non-profit Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), says 11 percent of Phnom Penh's population has been displaced, often forcibly evicted, over the past two decades. Residents are typically forced to move because they cannot produce ownership papers, a legacy of the brutal 1975-79 Khmer Rouge government that destroyed all property records.
"If you look [at] history, there is no documentation to state clearly which land belongs to the government, to private [business], to the people," says STT's Executive Director Sarom Ee.
When survivors returned to Phnom Penh in 1979, they settled wherever they could. Sarom says the government exploits these gaps in documentation to relocate the poor when convenient. "It's only the pretext to grab land, because the land is very expensive."
"The underlying issues - impunity, lack of rule of law - unfortunately don't change," says LICADHO Director Naly Pilorge. "Even if forced evictions stopped today, there is a huge backlog of outstanding cases. You're dealing with a glass where water is being poured in but never emptied."
Yet if those on land have limited recourse, boat communities, who are often minority Cham Muslims and ethnic Vietnamese, have even less. While land dwellers can make a case for tenure, the 2001 Land Law contains no provisions for ownership claims by fisher populations because riverbanks are deemed state-public land to which individuals have no right.
But LICADHO says other legislation requires the government to consider their plight. "Under Cambodia's Constitution and international law, the livelihoods of these boat communities must be protected," says Pilorge. "However, their legal status is weakened by a land law that fails to fully recognise or to protect such situations."
The Chroy Changvar fishing community knows their perilous position well. Community members say they have been relocated three times, twice returning to their long-term location, before being evicted for good in 2012, ahead of Sokha and the riverbank development being finalized. They were displaced from schools and markets and into conditions that can be windy and dangerous.
It is yet another hardship for members of a minority community who were targeted for execution by the Khmer Rouge. Sarom says that experience dissuades the Cham today from demanding rights: "They are traumatized."
Yet the situation is not limited to the Cham. In June, dozens of ethnic Vietnamese families from the floating village of Akrei Khsat near Phnom Penh were given three weeks' notice to evacuate, despite having lived in the area for 30 years. The government did not provide them with adequate housing alternatives, as the law requires. But, says Pilorge, "Relocation sites in forced eviction cases are often grossly inadequate."
Living in limbo
Meanwhile, as the wet season pushes water levels higher, Chroy Changvar's boat community inches closer to a new fenced-in construction site. Residents believe they will be moved when this development begins.
While they have yet to receive official notice, community leader Ee Yu says eviction rumours have trickled down from the district level to commune and village leaders. He is unsure when it will occur – whether as soon as next month, or not until after the 2018 general elections.
"Everyone knows they're going to come, but no one knows what day," says 40-year-old Li Marie, who has lived on boats all her life. Adds Karime: "It's the fate of the poor."
Village chief Jayt Sophry says City Hall eventually wants the boat people moved, but has not yet established a relocation site and that details are "above his station." Reasons behind the move include "beautification, tourism and hygiene," he says, adding he has submitted formal requests that the government find a new site before any eviction. "I'm worried for them, not just because they're in my village, but because in 1979, we came as one group."
Long Dimanche, spokesman for Phnom Penh's municipality, says nothing is planned. "So far, we [don't have] any idea about this plan," says Dimanche, adding that "living on boats is illegal. It's not permanent and not recognized by the local authority, [But forbidding] this kind of living is not related to any private development."
The company developing the new construction site - Korean-led Booyoung Khmer- did not reply to questions about its development plans, saying only that it is unaware of the boat community.
STT says such uncertainty about evictions is commonplace, noting they often take place without warning. Of the families currently facing eviction in Phnom Penh, says STT, just 4,000 have been formally notified, while 8,000 are under informal threat - and 700 of these are in Chroy Changvar.
Rumours aside, experts agree the outlook is grim. "The foreseeable future for this community is bleak," says Pilorge. "It's valuable land, and with these kinds of boat communities, success rates of stopping such forced evictions are low."
As the sun set on Friday, September 18, the Cham fishermen donned their best attire and streamed to the community's temporary mosque. Karime, too, went to pray.
"If they felt any pity for us, they'd give us an area to moor our boats," he says. "That's all we want."