How long does it takes to fill a lake with sand?
For Boeung Kak Lake in central Phnom Penh, Cambodia, it took over three years.
The developers kept working to fill it. Eventually, the lake flooded and destroyed nearby homes. What had been a thriving district was turned into a giant sandpit.
I visited Phnom Penh in 2009. At that time the Boeung Kak area was a popular tourist destination. Talking to people, though, it became clear that across the country, residents were being driven from their homes by private property developers (I recommend watching this excellent Unreported World episode for more on evictions across Cambodia).
The developers at Boeung Kak Lake are Shukaku Inc. - a company owned by Senator Lao Meng Khin, a prominent member of the Cambodian Government. Shukaku were granted a lease for the lake and the surrounding land in 2007. The following year they began pumping sand into the lake to prepare the way for the construction of high-rise buildings and luxury tourist developments.
Residents of Boeung Kak first heard about plans to destroy their livelihoods and evict them from their homes when they saw the news on TV. As compensation for their eviction, each resident was offered $8,500 (regardless of the size of their house) or relocation to flats 20km away. Many didn’t want to accept the compensation - $8,500 was far below the value of their houses and businesses, 20km too far away from their work and schools - but were forced to move after threats and intimidation from the developers.
Boeung Kak residents have been peacefully protesting against their eviction and the destruction of their district since they heard about the plans. Thirteen women activists were imprisoned in 2011 for their opposition to the actions of Shukaku Inc. Yorm Bopha was at the forefront of protests to get these women released. It got her imprisoned.
Last year, Bopha was arrested for allegedly planning an assault on two motorbike taxi drivers. She was tried, and found guilty - despite no evidence being presented to prove her involvement in the attack in court. Since then she has been sharing a cell with nine other women in a Phnom Penh prison. Amnesty International considers Bopha a prisoner of conscience, detained on fabricated charges due to her activism.
Bopha is one of the people featured in our Write for Rights campaign which was launched in early November. In the London Amnesty office, where I volunteer, we have received hundreds of cards for her, expressing support and solidarity with her struggle.
Then, last week, we heard that Bopha's final hearing of her prison sentence takes place tomorrow, 22 November. This is the last chance for her to be released and reunited with her husband and son, before the end of her prison sentence, and is a huge opportunity for putting pressure on the Cambodian government to allow her release. Tomorrow, Bopha has an appeal hearing.
Not only would her release mean she can be reunited with her son and husband. It would also be an important symbol of support for land rights activists across Cambodia, and worldwide.
In Bopha’s own words, upon being taken to prison: “Struggle, struggle – justice will happen.”
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.