by Natalie Bugalski and David Pred
David Pred and Natalie Bugalski are co-founders of Inclusive Development International. They co-authored the complaint to the World Bank Inspection Panel on behalf of the Boeung Kak community.
Last week thirteen Cambodian women representatives of the Boeung Kak Lake community were sentenced up to two-and-a-half years in prison after a summary trial. The women, including a 72-year old grandmother, were arrested on May 22 whilst singing at a peaceful protest to support 18 families whose homes had been buried in sand by a private developer (view the video). The arrest, trial and sentencing took place within 48 hours, with no time for the women’s lawyers to prepare a defense. During their trial, the police arrested two more community representatives who were waiting outside the courthouse prepared to testify as witnesses for the 13 women on trial.
The women, who call themselves the League of Boeung Kak Women Struggling for Housing Rights, have waged a multi-year battle to defend their homes and land in the bustling center of Phnom Penh. Their campaign has included everything from publicly burning effigies to rid the city’s authorities of evil spirits to baring their breasts at demonstrations to display their desperation. It has also involved a sophisticated legal advocacy strategy, including the submission of a complaint to the World Bank’s Inspection Panel, an internal watchdog mandated to investigate alleged violations of the Bank’s operational policies.
The women’s family homes were being threatened by one of the wealthiest and most powerful Cambodian tycoons, who is also a ruling party Senator, backed by China’s Inner Mongolia Erdos Hongjun Investment Corporation. In early 2007, Senator Lao Meng Khin was granted a 99 year lease over 133 hectares in central Phnom Penh, which covered Boeung Kak lake and its surrounding villages, home to some 20,000 people. The lease was granted for a mere $79 million US dollars, a fraction of the estimated $2 billion value of the property. Soon afterwards, the company began filling in the lake and coercing its denizens to leave the area for a measly sum in compensation. Attempts by the community and civil society advocates at persuading the Senator’s company and the government to stop the mass forced eviction appeared futile. They remained impervious to the outcry against what threatened to be the biggest single mass displacement of Cambodians since the Khmer Rouge emptied the cities in 1975.