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The Untitled

A panoramic shot of Boeung Kak lake taken on May 2011 shows the last section of water remaining. May 04, 2011. Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The Untitled, photo essay by Erika Pineros

The Untitled
Ti•tle |’tîtl|: LAW – a right or claim to the ownership of property.

In recent years Cambodia has seen a dramatic increase in land grabs and forced evictions. Economic land concessions and development projects have displaced tens of thousands across the country, leaving them homeless and pushing many into poverty.

From the start, Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak development was controversial, and challenged the government to deal with accusations of human rights abuses and corruption. It proved a bone of contention with development agencies, and led the World Bank to freeze all new funding to Cambodia in 2011.

Boeung Kak was the most prominent of the plague of evictions in Cambodia, not least because it displaced more than 3,500 families, a number that led to its description as largest eviction since the Khmer Rouge ordered the capital emptied in 1975.

In 2007, a 133-hectare area, including a large natural lake, was granted for commercial and housing development on a US$79 million, 99-year lease to Shukaku Inc.—which is owned by a senator of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

When the company started pumping sand into the lake—without installing a drainage system—thousands of homes flooded, forcing families to leave. Many were pressured into dismantling their homes in order to get the paltry sum of US$8,500 in compensation. In many cases, families left land on which they had lived for decades.

To many, this was grimly familiar, with elderly residents in particular comparing their plight to the darkest days of the Khmer Rouge.

In 2011, company excavators, protected by riot police and local police, demolished eight homes in Boeung Kak’s Village 22. Unarmed, and unable to fight back, residents could only watch as their homes were destroyed one by one.

Soung Sorphoan, a former Boeung Kak resident and at the time a leader of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, encouraged villagers to fight back. Using rubble, the villagers managed to stop the demolition. Soung Sorphoan, however, was beaten unconscious by police.

Despite court action, intimidation and the use of violence by authorities, communities around the country are fighting back.

Supported by human rights organizations, demonstrators regularly take to Phnom Penh’s streets to demand solutions. Wary of the consequences if caught, the men support from the shadows as women lead the protests facing the police.

Not only has their fundamental right to housing been undermined, but their livelihoods and communities have been shattered. Their cause is not politically driven. They did not choose to be forcefully evicted, nor did they choose to be away from their families and jobs to fight for their most basic rights. Yet—to many—this struggle has become their daily life. Despite knowing that their actions are unlikely to see their problems resolved, they are determined to continue—pioneers in the truest sense.

A man can be seen fishing at Boeung Kak lake before it was filled with sand. Nov. 11, 2010. Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Pipelines and excavators fill in the Boeung Kak lake. Without a proper drainage system—the lake’s waters flooded thousands of homes in the area, forcing families to leave. Dec. 26, 2010. Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Children sit on what is left of this home’s stairs at Boeung Kak. Families were forced to leave and demolish their own homes in order to receive the US$8500 compensation from the government. Jun. 01, 2011. Phnom Penh, Cambodia

A boy watches an excavator as it approaches the new company’s offices in Boeung Kak. Jun. 24, 2011. Phnom Penh, Cambodia

A man watches excavators demolishing a house during a forced eviction at Boeung Kak’s Village 22. Residents rushed to their homes to pack their belongings as the excavators continued the demolition. Sep. 16, 2011. Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Riot police beat Soung Sorphoan, a former Boeung Kak resident and leader of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, after he encouraged residents to stop excavators during a forced eviction in Village 22. Sep. 16, 2011. Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Defiant, residents burn tires where their homes stood a day before, when company excavators demolished eight homes in Village 22. Sep. 17, 2011. Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Supporters of land rights activists Yorn Bopha and Tim Sakmony clash with police while waiting on the court’s decision on their appeals on Nov. 07, 2012. The two women—designated as ‘prisoners of conscience’ by Amnesty International—were arrested on September 04, 2012. Sakmony was released after been given a reduced sentence. Bopha continues to be in prison to this date. Nov. 07, 2012. Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Tep Vanny protests as she finds out fellow activist and friend Yorm Bopha was sentenced to three years in jail. Dec. 27, 2012. Phnom Penh, Cambodia

A Boeung Kak resident during clashes with the police near Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house. Jul. 02, 2013. Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Balloons with SOS messages directed to president Obama and Hillary Clinton are released during a demonstration in the sand dunes of the former Boeung Kak lake. The balloons were released into the sky by demonstrators at the time they believed Air Force One would land in Phnom Penh for the ASEAN summit. Oct. 19, 2012. Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Q&A with Erika Pineros

Photography is…
A great excuse, an enquiry, a perspective.

Photography and writing…
Should be humble.

Who left the biggest impression on you?
Many in my family. So imperfect, so real, paradoxically beautiful.

Tell us a little about yourself
I’m struggling with this one, should we try talking about the story instead…?

Kulna110104-8662_200pxErika Pineros (website) I am a Colombian-Australian photojournalist and visual communicator based in Cambodia since 2010. My work focuses on documenting development and human rights issues in the area, and it has appeared in publications such as Foreign Policy, The Diplomat, Southeast Asia Globe & CNN International.
Photographer(s):

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