Hundreds of local residents and monks blocked a national road on June 19 in a protest against a sand dredging company they say is illegally occupying pagoda land.
About 600 residents and monks blocked National Road 6A from about 8 to 9:30am near the site of the sand dredging operation, which was set up along a section of the Mekong River in Kandal province’s Mok Kampoul district in Prek Anhchanh commune.
The roadblock ended after district authorities arrived at the protest and promised to settle the dispute by asking the company to dismantle the dredging operation and remove all materials from the plot belonging to the pagoda.
The Ratanak Bopharam Pagoda Committee had rented the plot to local businesswoman Chhoeun Many in 2015 to store sand dredging and construction materials while the private company dredged nearby.
Venerable Chhoeun Meng Chhun said after the protest that the pagoda committee wanted the land back to use it for public gatherings and ceremonies.
The committee’s agreement to lend the land to Many’s company had expired on July 1, 2019, he said, but the businesswoman had declined to leave. He added that Many had started renting the 0.5-hectare plot of land in 2015 for $800 per year.
“We want to reclaim the land to develop it for celebrating traditional ceremonies, but she has not agreed to pull out,” Venerable Meng Chhun said. “The land belongs to the pagoda, not to an individual.”
He added that the community members knew it was illegal to block the road but had no other option as local authorities had not resolved the issue despite numerous requests over the past year.
“Local authorities had just delayed and not resolved it, so villagers wanted to urge them to find a solution to the issue by setting up the road block,” he said.
After the roadblock had been dispersed, Kandal Provincial Deputy Governor Ney Charey inspected the sand dredging site and ordered local authorities to temporarily suspend the dredging operation and wait for authorities to review the contract between Many and the pagoda committee.
“Even if she refuses to move out, we will take legal measures to demolish the equipment because we have to implement the law,” he said. “However, we have to give some time for them to prepare to remove the materials.”
Ratanak Bopharam Pagoda Monk Chief Say Sim said at the site that the company’s occupation of the land violated the rights of the monks and pagoda committee by preventing them from developing the area in the public’s interest.
“We are very concerned that we will lose the land and then we can’t develop anything,” he said, adding that the pagoda has owned the plot since the 1980s.
Soth Sophat, 62, a resident of Prek Anhchanh village who attended the protest, said that people living near the pagoda were concerned over the potential loss of land.
“We are afraid that they will keep the pagoda’s land, that’s why we came to protest and to ask them to move out,” she said.
“We understand the law but people are shocked because it has taken about a year and there is still no solution,” Sophat added.
According to Sophat, tensions had flared in the community on the evening of June 18 when Many had verbally insulted a group of monks after they had moved some stones on the disputed property.
Prek Anhchanh Village Chief So Sophorn, said that villagers living around the pagoda are disappointed in Many’s actions, especially after she had insulted the monks.
“She knows that the land belongs to the pagoda but she has declined to move out,” he said, adding that the pagoda committee had already asked for help from district and provincial officials but still had found no solution.