Residents locked in a heated dispute with local officials and developers of the new mega-airport project in Kandal province say ruling party politicians have not addressed the long-running conflict as part of their commune council election campaign.
With a CPP sample ballot pasted to her house in Kampong Talong village, resident Bo Leap, 45, said ruling party representatives came to secure her vote without mentioning the commune’s most pressing issue. Three political groups – the CPP and opposition Candlelight Party and Khmer Will Party – are in the running for Boeung Khyang commune, a center of the conflict.
“The Candlelight Party is propagating that if people vote for them, they will solve it,” Leap said of the opposition. “The CPP taught only how to tick ballots, but they did not say anything to help us solve the land issue.”
Leap said she had only rarely seen CPP officials near the disputed area of the village during the campaign. Across the country, the 17 political parties contesting the June 5 election are now almost at the end of their two-week campaign period.
Meanwhile, Leap said, local authorities have regarded people who refuse to accept compensation from the airport’s developer, the highly well-connected firm OCIC, as members of the political opposition.
With the election approaching, Leap believed affected families want to hear promises from political parties to resolve the issue.
“I thought when the election comes, maybe they will help us solve the land issue,” she said. “But it seems impossible because so far, we still hear nothing about the issue.”
The remaining 100 families affected by the new mega-airport project have refused a set compensation price of $8 per square meter of farmland. The families steadily insist this price is too low to adequately compensate them for the loss of their land.
Heang Hiek, 42, also of Kampong Talong, said that since the election campaign started, she had not seen any party promotion near her home. Hiek said the commune election is an important chance to pick local leaders who are capable of addressing the people’s concerns.
“If the commune chief was good, he or she would help to solve land issues, but the current commune chief ignores and does not help the people,” she said. “If there was a change, I think there would be a solution.”
Another local villager, Khim Maly, said only two of the three parties on the ballot appear to be campaigning in her village.
She said Candlelight had told people to change their party affiliation to resolve land issues, which was a message missing from the CPP’s communications.
“If the old party [CPP] wins, there is no hope, but if there is a new party, there may be some hope,” she said.
Boeung Khyang commune chief Nay Chandy, of the CPP, was confident he would win another term.
“I understand that there are some issues that affect the feelings of the people, but this is the development of the country, we cannot avoid the impact,” he said, acknowledging that other parties have been raising the issue of the land dispute and promising to help people get better compensation.
“But for the CPP, there is no promise in this matter, we follow the practical implementation,” he said. “We do not promise to solve this problem because this is the government’s policy.”
Politicians from the opposition had a very different message.
Ly Mengkheang, Candlelight’s vice-president of the in Kandal province, said the party has pledged to help people find a better solution to the airport dispute.
“People are being abused and oppressed. People are in pain, so they will come and support the Candlelight Party,” Mengkheang said. “[We] will help people to renegotiate to get a better solution.”
Kong Monika, president of the Khmer Will Party, said that people affected by the airport are facing hardships that must be addressed.
“We will help to solve the problem of people who have land disputes with the company, so that they can get reasonable compensation,” Monika said.
He said the current local authorities from the ruling party do not pay attention to the plight of the villagers.
“We have run as candidates to represent the people to help take care of the people,” Monika said.
Since 2018, hundreds of families in four communes in the Kandal Stung district of Kandal province, as well as families in the Bati district of Takeo province, have seen farmland they have cultivated for years – and sometimes decades – taken by the state to make way for the massive airport development.
The $1.5 billion project overseen by OCIC will cover 2,600 hectares. The developer specializes in major infrastructure projects and is owned by the well-connected oknha Pung Kheav Se, who is also the chairman of Canadia Bank.
Korn Savang, an election observer with the monitoring group COMFREL, said election season is a chance for political parties to comfort the people’s hearts since they hope the party they vote for could help them.
“It is surprising that some parties try to ignore the place, because I don’t think political parties should campaign only in areas they expect to win,” he said. “People who have land crises want to see political parties’ clear policies to address their issue.”
Unaffected part of village gets an upgrade
Officials have marked the homes and fences of villagers who are being pushed out to make way for the airport.
Sixty-six houses in Kampong Talong village are affected, cutting nearly half of the village for the project.
Just about a month ago, the CPP funded the installation of solar lights along the main village road. The installation did not reach the part of the village affected by the airport project.
The village home of Soth Chanthet isn’t currently affected by the development. She said the solar lights were a nice addition, but she’s more concerned the sprawling airport dispute could one day reach her own front step.
“I would not be happy if it was developed to affect our land and we got a lower price,” she said. “I am worried that I would not receive good compensation.”