Hundreds of police and military police have been deployed to the road leading to the new Phnom Penh airport project in Kandal, as land clearance begins despite an ongoing land dispute with local residents.
The move comes after the Kandal provincial administration issued a statement on September 3, saying that they were setting up roadblocks to drain water from the runway construction site.
Residents said police began arriving at 5 a.m. on Sept. 7 and the company began clearing villagers’ farmland shortly after, although no settlement has been reached with residents yet.
Nai Phorn, from Talong village, whose farmland was cleared on Tuesday morning said that authorities appear to have taken the side of Overseas Cambodia Investment Corp (OCIC), which is developing the $1.5 billion project.
“Our hands and legs have been tied and our mouths have been covered because people can do nothing. Authorities have been deployed by the hundreds to protect the company,” he said. “I really do not know what to say because in the democratic society, why would they come to do this with the people by encroaching on our land?”
Phorn said that the statement saying authorities cut off roads for drainage was just an excuse to cover up the land clearance.
“To me, they act like a robber. In Cambodia, wherever there is development, the people always have tears,” he said. “This is not development for the people, but development for capitalists. I have been guarding my farm for three years, but now it has been cleared.”
“[We] still call on Samdech Hun Sen, to help solve the problem properly, Samdech should know how the people are suffering.
Another villager, Lonh Vanna, whose farmland was also cleared by the company, said that the authorities told people not to gather in protest, citing COVID-19.
“They can do whatever they want on our land, but we, the landowner, cannot do anything,” she said. “I think the actions of the company, including the authorities now, are to pressure the people to accept the offered compensation, but we will not accept that. We want a fair price, we want to live in justice, let us not live in injustice too much.”
Claiming compensation offers have been too low, for three years now hundreds of families have been locked in disputes over OCIC, which is owned by the well-connected Oknha Pung Kheav Se.
Reporters covering news on the airport have been harassed by authorities and some have been threatened with lawsuits.
Villager Toun Vannak said authorities have set up barricades to prevent villagers from accessing their farmland, which is being cleared by company machinery.
“The national defense forces came to crack down on innocent people. Why would they clear people’s farmland that has not yet been resolved,” he said.
“This kind of development is destroying people’s lives, making people poorer and poorer, and I think this is an injustice for the people,” he said. “The market price of land here has gone up, so with this offer when we run out of money, we will fall into poverty.”
In clips filmed by villagers and sent to a CamboJA reporter, many tractors and excavators can be seen clearing the farmland.
About 100 villagers also gathered on National Road 2, which is located about 2 kilometers from the village, intending to close the road. They were stopped by police and sent home.
On September 1, the company blocked off some parts of village roads and was met with protests.
Leng Sokrun, Kandal Stung district police chief, said that people were protesting over the land clearance, and planned to block National Road 2.
“There was no violence and authorities told them not to block the road because it will cause traffic jams and affect the public order,” he said.
Kok Say, who is in charge of land acquisition for the new airport, confirmed that the company began clearing farmland on Tuesday morning.
“Due to the demand for[development], the airport has set a target, so we have to make sure that the aircraft can fly by 2023 and we have to work to complete the project by 2023,” he said.
He said the company is standing firm on its offer of $8 per square meter — about one-tenth market rate — or the option of receiving land elsewhere in the nearby area.
“We have been dealing with it, we are just waiting for the payment of compensation, the company does not take people’s land and the company will not be able to raise the price,” he said. “And If they come to solve it, we will solve it for them.”
Soeng Senkaruna, a senior investigator at rights group Adhoc said that the authorities should mediate between the company and the people to reach an acceptable solution and the company should not encroach people’s property before a resolution is reached.
“It is illegal because they [the company] have to deal with the people before developing a project, but in case there is a violation of their property, they should suspend the development and find a solution with the people first to avoid infringement of property rights and affect the implementation of the law in the country.”
He said authorities often use force, obstruction and threats, making residents locked in disputes tired and afraid of continuing their protests, and thus they feel forced to accept whatever offer is made.
Kandal Provincial governor, Kong Sophorn and provincial police chief, Chhoeun Sochet, could not be reached for comment.