Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Kandal villagers report feeling pressured into accepting land compensation

Villagers gather to demonstrate in front of police barricades where authorities blocked a road leading to their farmland, which is being cleared to prepare the site for a planned airport in Kandal Stung district, Picture taken on September 12, 2021. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan
Villagers gather to demonstrate in front of police barricades where authorities blocked a road leading to their farmland, which is being cleared to prepare the site for a planned airport in Kandal Stung district, Picture taken on September 12, 2021. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan

A number of families affected by the new airport project in Kandal Stung district are still refusing to accept the state’s proposed compensation for their land, instead hoping that the upcoming commune elections will bring them a better solution. Others have decided to take the compensation, causing concerns that an ongoing court case against nine villagers is putting pressure on the community.

There are 11 families whose land has been directly affected by the airport’s runway and taxiway project, the site of which has since been cleared and kept off-limits to the public. More than 300 families have been affected by the whole airport project.

Lonh Vanna, whose sister is among nine villagers that have been charged with intentional violence with aggravating circumstances after a protest against the ongoing land clearances on September 12, said that her family stood firm in not accepting the compensation until the price was better. Since the charges, though, she has changed her mind.

“My husband is worried about my safety,” she said. “He is worried that if we do not accept, I will be arrested one day because I am already on the blacklist, so he decided to accept the land exchange to finish the issue.”

More than 100 affected people protested on September 12 after local authorities blocked the road leading to their farms and allowed the Overseas Cambodia Investment Corp (OCIC), which is owned by the well-connected Oknha Pung Kheav Se, to start clearing their farmland.

Nine people have been charged over intentional violence with aggravating circumstances, obstructing a public official with aggravating circumstances and incitement to commit a felony, under Criminal Code article 494 and 495. Those arrested can be punished by up to five years in prison.

“I am not happy; I accepted it because I have no choice,” Vanna said. “They are still lobbying my mother to sell the land, but she wants the authorities to drop the charges against my sister, then she will agree.”

Vanna has agreed to accept another plot of land in exchange around 10 kilometers from the village.

“I’m still not clear in my mind if I could own the land legally, or if they will take that land someday in the future,” she said. “I still think about this.”

Soth Srun, 40 years old, who has just over half a hectare of farmland affected by the runway, said that his families had been forced to accept the land exchange because he had no hope of a better solution.

“It is very difficult as we cannot enter our farmland anymore, they do not allow us to see the land,” he said. “So I decided to accept the land exchange to another place.”

According to Srun, the company has offered local families two choices of compensation: land exchange and a cash price for those families affected directly by the taxiway and runway, or a cash price of $8 per square meter for other families affected by the broader project.

One villager who has been charged by the court and asked not to be named told CamboJA that her family is still refusing the compensation.

“Some people are hopeless and agreed to accept the compensation but for me, it is my property, I do not accept either the price or the land exchange,” she said. “I still hope to get a better solution. I hope that when the [commune] elections come, Samdech [Prime Minister Hun Sen] may have pity on us, and he can help.”

She said she is also worried since she has been named in the court case.

“They asked me to accept the land exchange elsewhere, but I refused,” she said. “I am also worried, but I don’t know what to do, and they can do what they want.”

Another villager, Sovan Manith, has also agreed to accept the land exchange rather than taking the proposed money — $24,000 for her 0,30 hectare.

“I think that even if we continue to demand, we will finally lose. If we continue to protest, we are still hopeless to win the case, we have no choice,” she said. “There are those who still demand, because they hope they will win, but for me, I would like to say I surrender.”

Kandal provincial Governor Kong Sophorn said he did not know how many families out of the 11 are now accepting the compensation, saying that it was the people’s decision.

“What they are saying, that they are accepting it under pressure, is not right at all, because they agreed to accept,” he said. “The compensation is not related to the court case, it is two different things — one about the compensation, and one about the criminal case.”

Soeng Senkaruna, a senior investigator at rights group Adhoc, said that people had been quiet since the nine community members were charged.

“They are now afraid to express their rights to demand what they want, and there are those who agreed because they may think it’s hopeless, while some still believe that they can accept a better solution,” he said.

Senkaruna said the civil society organizations would like to see an acceptable resolution for both sides rather than having people accept compensation out of fear.

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