Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Ampov Prey Residents Protest Against New Phnom Penh Airport Project For Erecting Poles Again

Workers attempt to build a fence which will block the access from the houses of Ampov Prey community in Kandork commune to the road, March 19, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)
Workers attempt to build a fence which will block the access from the houses of Ampov Prey community in Kandork commune to the road, March 19, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

Residents of Ampov Prey community in Kandork commune, Kandal Stung district, once again protested against the work carried out by the new $1.5 billion Phnom Penh International Airport company on Tuesday. At the site, workers were attempting to erect pillars to build a fence after they filled the so-called 94 canal earlier this year. Some of the soil also ended up inside people’s houses.

A similar incident occurred on July 6 last year, about three weeks before the national election where 50 community residents blocked airport workers from constructing a large blue fence. The fence would have cut off access from people’s homes to a nearby road.

This year, 10 families accepted a $1,500 compensation and moved to a nearby place close to a pagoda to live temporarily.

The airport, which covers an area of 2,600 hectares, is being built by tycoon Pung Kheav Se’s Overseas Cambodia Investment Corporation.

Resident Sem Meas, 51, said on Tuesday morning, she and several residents joined the protest to stop airport workers from erecting poles to build a fence behind one of the villager’s houses. The community views this as a threat to their homes.

She added that they will not hesitate to put their lives at stake to protect their homes as they have lived on the land for many generations.

“I am afraid that when the water rises, our houses would collapse and we would become homeless,” Meas said. “If they destroy people’s land, where do we live? If they [the government] solve the people’s problems well, I will follow them. But if they just deceive the people, we will not go anywhere. More than 600 families are willing to die here, not go anywhere.”

Meas told CamboJA that since the end of January, the company has increased the amount of soil that is being dumped in their backyards – more than it was prior to the national election in 2023. However, the work could not be stopped in time because most of the villagers are out earning an income.

Only on Tuesday morning did people see the company digging holes to plant the pillars, prompting them to immediately protest against it. “I don’t know when they secretly started doing it. When we asked the company security guards, they said they did not know. We asked them to call their boss to come but he did not come, so we decided to remove the pillars,” Meas said.

Following the protest, the company stopped momentarily but resumed about 1pm with more than 10 workers and three excavators. The community plans to continue protesting until the company owner and authorities appear and solve the problem, she vowed.

Although she is not confident that the local authorities will resolve the issue for the community, she nevertheless called on Prime Minister Hun Manet to take heed of the problem and help the community.

“I ask Samdech to help the people in this place and solve the land and housing issue. Help the people in this place to live comfortably. Don’t make us cry or make it difficult for us.

“I would also like to have a school and a hospital here so that our children can read and write […] if he [Hun Manet] says we cannot stay here and wants to evict us, we ask him to give us the land next to the pagoda because those fields are also our land,” Meas said.

According to her, the land dispute in her community has been going on for many years. In the past, it only affected their​ farmland, but now it is affecting their homes.

A villager looks at her house in Ampov Prey community in Kandork  commune where villagers protest against the building of a fence, blocking access to the road, March 19, 2024. (CamboJA/Phon Sothyroth)

While cleaning the fish caught in the canal behind her house, Phors shared that since the start of the new airport project, her life as well as the others’ have been very difficult. Previously, the community used to farm and fish, and grow vegetables, and earn a decent income to support the family, but now her livelihood has declined, causing her to fall into debt.

“Thanks to a steady income in the past, we never owed anyone because we made enough to eat,” she said. “These days, we are working ourselves to the bone only to earn 20,000 riel ($5) a day.”

To sustain a livelihood, they have to walk more than 10 kilometers to reach the lake because the canal behind their houses has been filled. “But when we make 20,000 to 30,000 riel, we can’t even use that money to survive because we need to pay our loans. Every family’s life has become very difficult every day after the closure of the canals, rivers and lakes.”

It is understood that before the airport project took shape, their daily household income was 60,000 to 100,000 riel (approximately $15 to $25), which did not require the residents to look for factory work. They also had farms, vast land and the canal, and could grow lotus and other crops.

“Life was very comfortable when the land was not taken [by the company] but after they took it from the people to build dams, canals and clear the fields, we lost our farming land,” Phors said, who has been a resident of Ampov Prey village since 1991.

Recalling a similar incident last year when workers came to fill “94 canal”, she said at the time, the authorities requested the company to remove the soil. But she did not see any officials during Tuesday’s incident, hoping that they would come on Wednesday.

She also said her community has submitted petitions to many departments, but there has been no solutions so far.

Kandal Stung district governor Ouch Saroeun said he was aware of the issue and had already informed the provincial governor.

When asked about the solution for the residents, Saroeun declined to comment as he could not tell when a solution will be provided. “It’s out of my jurisdiction,” he said.

Kandal provincial governor Kong Sophorn could not be reached for comment.

Chiv Kok Say, who is in charge of land acquisitions for the new airport project, told CamboJA on Tuesday afternoon that the workers were only doing their job. “They’re working on the land that belongs to the airport, not state or resident’s land.”

Kok Say explained that the canal excavation will not affect the people. “This is because we [the company] plan to build a bridge from the people’s homes to avoid flooding.”

When asked when the bridge would be built, he said, “I can’t tell you the exact date”. Regardless, residents are worried about flooding when the rainy season starts.

Ampov Prey community in Kandork  commune of Kandal Stung district, March 19, 2024. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

Am Sam Ath, operations director of the human rights NGO Licadho, stressed that the issue should be solved soon as it has been going on for a long time.

“I think this issue should be solved because it affects their right [to home] and livelihood.” The authorities and other relevant official​s should accelerate the solution, he added.

“In the past we have seen protests, threats of violence [from the authorities] leading to arrests, which is not a good picture for our society. We want to see the authorities rush to solve this problem to avoid the effect on people’s lives,” Sam Ath said.