PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Cambodia has been one of several of the last decade’s East Asian economic success stories, seeing its poverty rate plummet to 18.6 percent in 2012.
Enrique Aldaz-Carroll, former Senior Country Economist at the World Bank, called Cambodia one of the “Olympians of growth.” “With an annual average of 7.7 percent for two decades now, it is now the sixth-fastest in the world from 1993 to 2013,” Aldaz-Carroll said.
Cambodian economic growth is forecasted to reach 7.5 percent in 2015, in spite of regional instability. While the Cambodian economy is driven primarily by its garment and construction industries, Cambodia expects five million international tourists in 2015, according to Prime Minister Hun Sen—up from 11 percent from the 4.5 million in 2014.
“Tourism has contributed to sustaining economic growth, creating jobs and reducing people’s poverty,” Hun said. The government sees tourism as “green gold” and the development of Cambodia’s tourism focuses mainly on the potential of cultural and ecological resources.
While Cambodia boasts two world heritage cultural sites, it has recently lost one of its biggest ecological tourist attractions—Boeung Kak Lake.
The Cambodians leased the lake, the largest urban wetland in Cambodia’s capital, and the surrounding area to Shukaku Inc. in 2007. The company subsequently began the process of filling the lake with sand, in order to facilitate construction projects on and around the lake.
More than seven years later, Boeung Kak Lake has been reduced to a puddle; thousands of Cambodians have been displaced and the lake’s ecosystem irreparably damaged.
The lake was once relied on as a means of storm water drainage; predictably, local flooding has increased since Shukaku began pumping sand into Boeung Kak in 2008.
The lake was also a destination for foreign tourists, and lakesiders depended on the lake to bring foreigners to their lakeside shops, restaurants and hotels.
The lake project has prompted protests from lakeside residents who were given the choice between $8,500 in compensation or $500 to relocate to Shukaku-provided housing on the outskirts of Phnom Penh and from human rights and environmental activists from abroad.
Thus far, the Cambodian government has met the protests with oppression.
“Cambodia has a long track record of using its highly politicized legal system to target and imprison activists, including for peaceful protests,” an Amnesty International report said.
According to Janice Beanland of Amnesty International, the Cambodian government is continuing this trend in its treatment of lakeside protestors.
“The Cambodian authorities cannot expect anyone to consider these cases in isolation—they are part of a familiar pattern of the authorities lashing out at critics and violating the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression, often violently,” Beanland said.
Those arrested have been subjected to summary trials at the hands of a judicial system that has drawn criticism from the U.N. for its lack of independence.
The controversy surrounding Boeung Kak Lake has raised questions about the inclusiveness of Cambodian development; after all, a senator of Cambodia’s ruling party owns Shukaku Inc.
While the potentially exclusive nature of Cambodian development has received relatively little attention in the West, a forthcoming photography book, Transitioning Cambodia, could change that.
The book is a collaboration between photojournalist Nicolas Axelrod, journalist Denise Hruby and designer Fani Llaurado.
While Axelrod notes the impressiveness of the rising tide of Cambodian development, he wonders how many are being left in its wake.
“It’s a phase of Cambodia that we will never see again. It’s impressive how quickly the middle class has grown and there is so much more wealth than before. But what worries me and what I am scared of is that a lot of people have been left out in this change,” Axelrod said.
– Parker Carroll