Between 2008 and 2012, a vast lake in Phnom Penh was made to vanish. The resulting protests changed Cambodia

The lake in Phnom Pehn. Image: Chris Kelly.

Between 2008 and 2012, a vast lake in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh was made to vanish.  The thriving ecosystem was filled in with sand, and the local community of Boeung Kak, made up of 20,000 people who lived on or around the lake, were displaced.

It is the largest eviction of citizens since the Khmer Rouge emptied the city in 1975. The scale of the engineering involved to reclaim such a vast expanse of water is staggering. Yet what resonates is not how the government and developers achieved such a feat, but rather how the resulting protest movement has profoundly changed Cambodian society.

The now London-based filmmaker Chris Kelly spent six years filming the destruction of Boeung Kak and the impact on its inhabitants. The result is the critically-acclaimed film A Cambodian Spring. The feature documentary has recently been awarded Best Documentary at the Brooklyn Film Festival and the Special Jury Prize at Hot Docs festival in Toronto.

The accolades are a testament not just to his skill and dedication as a filmmaker but the courage of the film’s main characters, the Buddhist monk Venerable Luon Savath and the largely female Boeung Kak protest movement led by Tol Srey Pov and Tep Vanny.

I spent six months with Kelly during the filming, which took us from the capital to sites of extrajudicial killings in the rainforests of the Cardamom Mountains and the farmland of Kratié Province. I caught up with the director at the recent Galway Film Festival to discuss the film and the perils Phnom Penh’s citizens have faced in the name of unrestrained development.

A bulldozer by the lake.

Initially the situation seems a familiar one, mirroring the colossal push towards urbanisation that can be seen right across Asia. “Phnom Penh is seeing this huge wave of humanity coming in from the countryside as it’s relatively prosperous,” Kelly points out. “There’s a lot of abject rural poverty that people are trying to escape so they’re coming into the cities looking for work, away from rice-farming, and invariably they end up renting accommodation in informal urban settlements.”

The problem, he explains, is that “the land is so valuable these settlements are very quickly pushed out of the city and people are being relocated out onto the fringes. And they attempt to come back in again, resulting in this unsustainable cycle of poverty, exploitation and displacement.”

While forced evictions have been happening across the city, Boeung Kak immediately grabbed the filmmaker’s attention. “I naturally gravitated towards the site because it’s so huge in terms of the number of people that it impacted (4000 families in all), the feat of engineering involved, and how much it was tied up in the shady nepotistic political manoeuvring that the ruling Cambodian People's Party are famous for.”

Rather than separate the environmental and social sides to the loss of this environment, Kelly shows the two as being intrinsically linked. “The developers dredged sand from the conflux of two of the most powerful rivers in the world with no real idea what effect it would have on the riverbeds of the Tonlé Sap and the Mekong rivers; ecosystems that millions of people’s lives depend on. The Tonlé Sap, for instance, is so powerful that for part of the year, it flows back upstream. They were pumping sand from this vital waterway to fill up Boeung Kak lake.”

Lying largely at sea-level and heavily reliant on agriculture, water plays a large and precarious role in Cambodia’s survival. It is believed that a major reason for the abandonment of the ancient Khmer capital of Angkor Wat for Phnom Penh was due to climate change and drought.

Disrupting the water cycle could have catastrophic long-term effects. Kelly has seen this unfold on a more immediate timescale, “Phnom Penh is historically a city built on reclaimed land, surrounded by lakes and marshland. Boeung Kak was the single largest catchment of rainwater left in the city; a city that ever year faces torrential downpours during rainy season. Since it was filled in, the city has had problems with flooding and sewage issues. Several people have even been electrocuted in the homes that remain around what was once the lake.”

While the shots in A Cambodian Spring capture the terrible beauty of the urban lake’s destruction, Kelly’s focus in the film is always on the individuals involved. “There were floating houses literally on the water. There were people continually ferrying around and fishing on boats. They farmed morning glory there. Around the edges was a vibrant and diverse community. There was everyone from so-called trash-pickers to lawyers living there.

“At the same time,” he goes on, “it’s easy to romanticise the past and cities inevitably change. The community of Boeung Kak have always said they’re not opposed to development but they wanted it to be inclusive, fair and constructive rather than destructive. They accepted change but not the unjust and callous nature of how it unfolded; the short-changing, the demolitions, the repression. That’s at the heart of their campaign. It was never development they opposed; it was the way they were treated.”

The land issue in Cambodia was one fraught by complexities, absences and ambiguities. When the capital fell to the Khmer Rouge, the city’s population, having been swollen to almost 3m by refugees from the war-torn countryside, were forced out. Many ended up working and dying in the killing fields, or escaping to camps across the Thai border.

When the survivors returned, after the Vietnamese invasion, they resettled in the city. During their reign, Pol Pot’s forces had abolished private property and destroyed land titles of ownership.

The protests. 

In the long turbulent years that followed, progress was made as Kelly notes: “Cambodian land titles were set up after the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, and amended in the 2001 Land Law, so they actually have exceptionally good land laws in favour of the individuals who lived there. Some people moved to Boeung Kak lake in the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.”

Those who have had uncontested occupancy for five years or more are entitled to legal ownership. The problem is that the Cambodian government, under the Prime Minister Hun Sen, does not want to follow the law.

“They obfuscate or simply ignore the issues, with impunity. When the World Bank got involved, they created a systematic program, the Land Management and Administration Project (LMAP). In our film, the people you see have lived there for a long time, sometimes decades, and they’ve bought the land legally with the required papers. They have very strong evidence to prove their right to ownership. The government and developers do what they want in the face of this.”

The sense of cronyism that has spread across Cambodia has its focal point at Boeung Kak, where the development has taken place for the benefit of Shukaku Inc. “Its owner is a leading ruling party senator called Lao Meng Khin who holds under his control vast swathes of the country’s landmass and resources. The World Bank hesitated in giving out land titles because it was contentious and the regime took advantage.

“They changed the law, sold the land to Shukaku Inc for $79m for a 99-year lease and yet its estimated value is at least $1bn. They come up with extremely flimsy and speculative projects for eco-cities and business hubs, which amount to nothing.” The likelihood, Kelly predicts, is that they’ll “just sit on the property until the land value increases and then sell it off piece by piece, with very little planning or benefit to the citizens. So even the development side is a fraud.”

At the centre of the issue is the country’s leader Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, who has been in power since 1985. A canny operator, his administrations have nevertheless been dogged for decades with accusations of corruption, land-theft and the assassinations of political opponents and activists.

“Hun Sen is a very sophisticated and intelligent politician” Kelly admits, “but the corruption is endemic. Almost 40 per cent of the country’s budget comes from donor aid. They’re heavily reliant on it but so much is embezzled and disappears. It’s propping up a corrupt kleptocratic government and very little happens to prevent it or to hold them to account.”

Part of this is down to geopolitics – “There’s a kind of proxy issue in terms of the US and their relationship with China feeding through the country,” Kelly notes. “There’s perhaps a willingness to turn a blind eye to illegal activities or the disappearance of aid under supposed accounting incompetence, provided they remain a buffer in wider geopolitical terms.”

The issues however are impossible to ignore. “Environmental campaigners turn up beaten to death in car boots. Grenades have been thrown into opposition rallies. Everyone from monks to activists being gunned down and the cases remaining unsolved or ignored because the regime has brought some semblance of prosperity compared to the horrors of the past.”

In the case of Boeung Kak, the protest movement seeking justice has been almost entirely a female one. They have endured threats, imprisonment and violence. One activist, Khek Chan Raksmey, suffered a miscarriage after being kicked in the stomach by police. A Cambodian Spring documents beatings and arrests. One of the central figures in the film Tep Vanny is currently serving a two-and-a-half-year sentence in prison.

“It’s a women’s movement because they always wanted it to be nonviolent,” Kelly points out “and they recognised it would escalate with men at the forefront. By contrast, the techniques they employ are very creative, intelligent and artistic. The response that male protestors received in the past, as the film shows, was instantly hostile from the police; they stood a good chance of being beaten or killed. In the riots we captured, the police were not hesitant at all to open up with live rounds on men. There’s a reluctance to do so with women at the forefront but they have still been subjected to horrendous treatment.”

The site from above.

Another reason is that the domain they’re fighting for is very much the women’s traditional domain in Cambodia – the home. “It was once a matriarchal society and you still sense that with numerous strong proactive individuals leading the way. They have a presence that’s much more commanding than the men around them.”

A Cambodian Spring weaves the story of the Boeung Kak resistance with that of the ‘multi-media monk’ Venerable Luon Savath. With the Buddhist hierarchy tainted through political influence, the Venerable stands out as an advocate of human rights and what he calls ‘engaged Buddhism’.

This comes at considerable personal risk. “They say he’s inciting people and leading them to protests, that’s genuinely not true; he’s always maintained his integrity. He’s always insisted he’s an observer bearing witness, following the path of Buddha. The pagodas, who oppose him, used to be the moral compass of the country but that’s been lost.”

The Venerable has been subject to numerous death threats, and the film charts the continual risks he faces of defrocking and arrest. “His brother and nephew were shot during land disputes while his meditation teacher was assassinated near a pagoda in the city.”

“He was an artist before all this, painting depictions of the story of Buddha on the walls and ceilings of pagodas around the country.” In Kelly’s mind, Venerable Luon Savath is continuing his calling. “He put down his paint brushes and picked up a camera. To me it’s an extension of his creative mind. He’s a natural filmmaker. He’s always kept that integrity as a monk and a documentarian. He uses social media and live streaming to keep matters transparent, and counter official silence or propaganda.”

The day the exiled opposition politician Sam Rainsy returned to Cambodia in 2013, Kelly notes, there were more than 100,000 people marching through the streets. “It wasn’t even reported on the television news that day. For all its many flaws, social media is a force against authoritarianism, in cases like this. It connects people and they’re able to share information. This ability to bypass official channels, along with the sustained protests, has deeply altered the political landscape of Cambodia.”

In recent weeks, the government has undertaken an authoritarian clampdown in advance of next year’s elections. Hun Sen seems emboldened by the current instability of international diplomacy and the global wave of regressive measures against the press. “It appears as if Hun Sen knows he cannot win this election fairly,” Kelly observes, “so he is doing whatever he can to tip the odds in his favour, and again he can do so with impunity. There isn’t the political will among the many Western institutions that wield influence to prevent him.” 

The government’s actions have been swift and dictatorial: shutting down The Cambodia Daily, arresting the leader of the opposition and accusing him of treason, expelling international NGO’s and their foreign staff, closing down fifteen national radio stations, all in a bid to silence the growing clamour of dissent. While these moves may seem unprecedented in recent times, the situation could escalate further, Kelly argues. “I hope that the elections will be free, fair, transparent and without violence, that the local and foreign journalists and civil society workers will be allowed to do their jobs without threat of intimidation, jail or expulsion and that the ruling party will accept the election results, but I am not holding my breath for any of those things.”

Though the ruling regime remains in power, the changes undergone by the country have nevertheless been startling. “When I first went to Cambodia, people wouldn’t say anything critical of Hun Sen,” Kelly says. “You can even see it near the beginning of the film where people are praying to Hun Sen and his wife as their houses are being bulldozed. And by the end, we have people in the streets chanting ‘Hun Sen step down’. As much as he is still feared, that was unthinkable when I first arrived.” Though it may be cold comfort in a deteriorating situation, there is room for tentative hope, Kelly believes, in the fact that the internet offer alternative routes of information and discourse. “Venerable Luon Sovath live-streams from protests and over one hundred thousand people watch, and those numbers will only grow if things get worse.” 

In the past decade, the skyline of Phnom Penh has been increasingly filled with dazzling half-empty skyscrapers. The extraordinary Khmer modernist buildings of Vann Molyvann are being threatened one by one. The iconic/infamous White Building is to be demolished and the site redeveloped.

It is worth asking, the film strongly implies, for whose benefit is development being undertaken and at whose expense? A Cambodian Spring avoids facile heart-warming or condemnatory answers for a more complex view but the cost is still apparent.

“The whole cityscape is changing.” Kelly observes, “You see vibrant communities full of energy and life and they’re obliterated over time. Families are forced to demolish their own homes. What was once a mosaic is just flattened.

“I kept thinking of Dresden after the war, while filming. You see these lone rooms, walls, toilets sitting in a decimated landscape that’s become a wasteland of rubbish, with the skyscrapers in the background. And, not long ago, there were homes there.”

Darran Anderson is the author of Imaginery Cities.


American policing never adjusted to the decades-long decline in urban violence

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Princeton University’s Patrick Sharkey is an almost impossibly prolific academic, regularly publishing an array of well-regarded studies on everything from social distancing to neighbourhood change. But in recent years he’s become best known for his work on criminal justice and law enforcement – topics that have risen to the top of America’s policy agenda.  

Sharkey’s last book, Uneasy Peace, is about the dramatic decline in crime rates in American cities, what caused it, and what is needed to sustain it. Published in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement’s emergence in 2014, it deftly analyzes issues that are again roiling America after the killing of George Floyd. 

Uneasy Peace, and the work Sharkey has published since Floyd’s murder, argues for a massive campaign to address violence in American cities. But that does not mean flooding the streets with more police officers. CityMetric spoke with Sharkey about the little-known factors behind America’s great crime decline, the need for massive public investment, and what community policing looks like without the police.

Why did violent crime in the US, and in American cities particularly, fall so sharply between the early 1990s and the early 2010s? 

Violence from the late 1960s through the early 1990s was at an extreme level. There was a crisis of violence throughout much of urban America, particularly in the big cities. Then something happened in the 1990s. It happened because both political parties took on crime and violence as central issues in their platforms. Bill Clinton ran on a platform that he was tougher on crime than the Republicans had been. The whole country saw violence as a national crisis.

What happened in the early 1990s is there was a large-scale mobilisation to retake public spaces and make cities safe. That consisted of several parts. There was a really large-scale effort to bolster police forces, to invest in more aggressive tactics of policing, to go after gang activity, to shut down drug markets.

At the same time there was a large-scale expansion of local organisations that really mobilised to make their communities safer: after-school programs, religious organizations, community centres, neighbourhood groups. These kinds of organisations expanded in a major way.

What I find is that the expansion of those kinds of community organisations stands alongside the expansion of police forces as components of why violence fell. They combined with expansion of video surveillance, camera systems, and private security. All these things happened at roughly the same time, and public spaces transformed. That's why violence fell so dramatically, beginning in the early 1990s.

The crime decline benefited everybody, making urban areas safer, and convincing more middle- and upper-income people to move back to cities. But you argue that those who live in the most violent neighbourhoods benefited the most, because violent crime declined most in those areas. What has changed in these communities as they've seen less crime?

The most obvious benefit is that tens of thousands of lives were saved, with the greatest impacts experienced by Black men. We found that for most groups, life expectancy wouldn't change that much if homicide never fell. But for Black men, there was an enormous change: the life expectancy of Black men rose by almost a year due purely to the drop in homicide mortality. That is a change as large as any public health advancement over the past several decades.

Then there are direct consequences for academic achievement. The places where violence dropped the most are places where statewide test scores rose the most. And children who were in places that became less violent over the course of their childhood were much more likely to rise up in the income distribution in adulthood and to make more income as adults.

Violence has a long reach. There's a direct effect of violence on every institution, every member, every child within that community. It damages kids’ cognitive development and academic functioning. So, when violence falls, kids are able to learn, kids are able to focus in school if they're not thinking about the threat of violence.

Then it has an indirect impact because life returns when a community becomes safer. Businesses start to set up shop, families invest in that neighbourhood, it becomes a vibrant place again, and that means more jobs are there, that means more opportunities are nearby. That changes the possibilities for a child as they near adulthood and enter the labour market. All this translates into improved economic outcomes later in adulthood.

You point to research that shows aggressive policing and imprisonment has been part of the story of America's great crime decline, but at immense human cost. You note that while every other kind of violence has fallen since the early 1990s, the rates of police violence remain consistent.

Why hasn't police violence responded to what's happened everywhere else?

We invested heavily in an aggressive style of policing. We asked police departments to go take over city streets and reduce violence by any means necessary. That was a conscious policy decision made in the 1980s and 1990s. It was supported by most Americans. Not everyone, but it had support across the political spectrum. It had support from Black and white Americans. Not universal support, but it did have strong support. 

What has changed over time is that as violence fell, as city streets became safer, the strategies that police departments use didn’t change.

I lay out two policy questions toward the end of the book. The first is how can we make sure that violence keeps falling? The second one is how can we do it with a new approach that doesn't rely on the prison system and the aggressive policing of the past few decades. That's the challenge right now: What's the next model?

What do you make of calls to defund or even abolish the police? In your book, you say that every video of police brutality makes it harder to reimagine a new role for the police. Did the George Floyd video make it impossible?

It might be impossible. There are lots of neighbourhoods where the institution has lost all credibility, and that happened a long time ago. More people are coming to that conclusion now.

We need a new model to deal with the challenge of violence. If we pursue a policy agenda that is designed to simply exact revenge against the police and try to destroy this institution, we're going to leave cities vulnerable. If we pursue an agenda that just attempts to dismantle the police before an alternative institution is ready to take responsibility, then we run the risk of destabilising neighbourhoods. That's my biggest concern.

Over a longer term, I think the role of the police should be dramatically reduced. We have great evidence that local community organisations, in combination with residents, are at least as if not more effective at controlling violence. They've just never been given the same resources, the same commitment.  

(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

At the end of your book, you call for a “war against violence.” To fight that war, investment is needed if these groups are going to take the place of the police. But we seem to be embarking upon a new age of austerity. What could the ramifications for urban violence be if the US Congress fails to support city and state governments?

Austerity is not inevitable, but it doesn't look like this Congress is preparing to invest in state and local governments. It's not inevitable that we're going to see a period of fiscal crisis in cities. That's a policy choice but if that happens, if city budgets are reduced and funding for local community organizations drops, we'll probably see a rise in violence.

When cities and communities are abandoned, that's what happens. That's why violence rose the first time. In the early 1970s, the federal government abandoned its support of central cities, the power structure of state governments shifted toward suburbs. If funding for cities and local organisations falls, we should expect a rise in violence. 

You write about a newer institution in Australia’s Aboriginal communities that patrols the streets, unarmed, to defuse situations and address issues – everything from domestic disputes to public drunkenness – in place of the police.  But the role of this community patrol, and neighbourhood groups in the US, is about prevention. Is there a role for law enforcement in ensuring that those who commit murder and violence are punished?

Yes. I think the model that we need to work toward is one where a different set of actors are responsible for overseeing public spaces and making sure everybody is safe, everyone is supported within those communities. Then the police play a secondary role.

That means when there's a mental health crisis, you have trained mobile response teams who are the first to respond to those incidents. Patrol of a neighbourhood should not be carried out by police officers, it should be carried out by advocates, by neighbours who are well trained and genuinely concerned for the well-being of their neighbours. At the same time, I argue that there is a role for police. In places where gun violence is extreme, it's potentially harmful to relieve the police of all responsibilities. There are weapons crimes where I think the police should still be the first to respond. There is a role for police because gun violence is so extreme in the US.

The biggest change, which is not often mentioned in these discussions, is in patrol. The people who are out in public space, making sure that no problems emerge, making sure that kids are safe, that they're getting where they need to go. Making sure that if someone comes home from the late shift, they have someone they can see in public space and know that they're okay, know that they'll be safe walking home.

That should not be police officers. There are too many communities where the level of mistrust is too severe. It should be other members of the community who are trained professionals, whose job is to be a pro-social presence in public space. That's one major change that I don't think is mentioned enough in these debates about who should do what. Who should be a pro-social presence in public space?

You cite research that suggests that despite the crime spike between the late 1960s and the early 1990s, the second half of the 20th century was less violent than the first half. So despite recent crime spikes in some cities, and what appears to be a surge in domestic violence related murders during the pandemic, does that mean we are living in one of the most peaceful periods in American history?

Yeah, without a doubt. The data before 1950 are not great. But the best evidence we have suggests that violence has been falling over the history of our country. There have been periods with more and less violence, but without a doubt, we are living in one of the safest periods in US history.

We need to focus a great deal of attention on violence. It is the fundamental challenge of cities. But along with urgency, we have to be aware of progress that's happened over time. New York is going to have a higher level of violence this year, in all likelihood, than it had a couple of years ago. That's something we need to maintain focus on. New Yorkers are dying.

But we also have to remember that there were 2,200 murders [annually] in New York in the early 1990s. There will be somewhere between 300 and 400 this year. That’s urgent, but let's also celebrate progress and make sure we have an accurate perception of the level of violence and that we don't exaggerate short-term fluctuations.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.