Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Koh Kong villagers still seeking resolution to 20-year land dispute with Cambodian tycoon

Villagers from Koh Kong gather in front of the Interior Ministry in Phnom Penh, seeking intervention in a land dispute with Heng Huy. Picture taken March 28, 2022. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
Villagers from Koh Kong gather in front of the Interior Ministry in Phnom Penh, seeking intervention in a land dispute with Heng Huy. Picture taken March 28, 2022. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

Hundreds of villagers in Koh Kong province are still stuck in a protracted land dispute with the Cambodian tycoon Heng Huy. Almost 20 years have passed, but there appears to be no resolution in sight. All this time, having lost their farming lands, they have struggled to maintain their livelihoods.

They make up about 197 families from three communities in two districts, Botum Sakor and Sre Ambel. In the past, urged by their village and commune chiefs, 65 of these families had accepted monetary compensation from Heng Huy, who owns Heng Huy Agriculture Group, in exchange for vacating land they had long depended on.

The villagers say that Heng Huy has encroached on their land since 2007, destroying a lot of rice and crops in the area. They say that he forced them to cease their activities on the land, and provided just $25 to $50 in compensation to each family. Instead of being granted assistance, villagers who fought back to protect their land have been brought before the Koh Kong provincial court and questioned.

The villagers say that they have filed their complaints to the relevant provincial, commune, and district authorities, asking them to intervene on their behalf. Last month, they also approached the Ministry of Interior, seeking help from the minister, Sar Kheng, but to no avail.

When asked about the challenges they are facing through all this, the villagers cried and told CamboJA that they feel helpless.

Dek Hout, a representative of the villagers, told CamboJA, “Heng Huy threatens the people, telling them to leave and to stop depending on the land. If we don’t accept his compensation, he still takes the land from us. He threatens us, and he has many bodyguards with guns too.”

She added, “I had eight hectares of land which the Heng Huy illegally cleared. At present, I have only one hectare remaining for farming, to get some income to take care of my family. I have no other land for farming since he grabbed my land.” Some other families have lost over 10 hectares of land.

Hout said she and many other villagers decided not to accept compensation because they had no other land on which they could farm, and the compensation was too little and unjust. “If we decide to leave this land and accept the compensation Heng Huy provided, we will not get enough money to buy another land for farming and living.”

She also said that some of the families were previously migrant workers in Thailand who had returned to work in their own country, but they found themselves unable to resume farming due to the ongoing land dispute. They felt they could not accept the low compensation because they did not want to return to Thailand as migrant workers. At the same time, they didn’t know where else to go or what to do.

Villagers from Koh Kong gather in front of the Interior Ministry in Phnom Penh, seeking intervention in a land dispute with Heng Huy. Picture taken March 28, 2022. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

According to Hout, the commune and district authorities have remained silent, and told the villagers that they cannot win the land dispute because Heng Huy holds the land title. Moreover, ten people have been charged by the Koh Kong provincial court for causing social unrest, when they are the victims.

Eth Teng, another villager embroiled in the land dispute, told CamboJA that she had 11 hectares of land, given to her by her parents, which she has depended on since 1979. Since the land dispute, she has only been farming on the one hectare that remains.

“How can I live? My family depends on farming only,” said Teng. “I don’t have enough money to send my children to school and to fulfill the whole family’s needs. I have no other job,” said Teng.

She said it’s unfair that those protecting their land are being threatened by law enforcement. “We are protecting our own land, not another’s land. But we are disappointed that we are always accused of committing a crime from the provincial authority,” said Teng.

She also said that no resolution has been forthcoming from the Ministry of Interior despite the villagers’ complaints.

Sok Sothy, Koh Kong’s provincial deputy governor, told CamboJA, “I have told the media many times about this land issue, that the people in the land dispute have to file their complaint to the provincial municipal court. They shouldn’t file the complaint to the Interior Ministry.”

He added, “It is only the court that can [resolve] this land issue because the tycoon Heng Huy has the land title. He depends on the land legally, not grabbing other people’s land in those areas.”

Hour In, a provincial coordinator of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (Licadho),  said that Koh Kong’s provincial authority had previously investigated the long-standing land dispute between Heng Huy and the 197 families. However, the investigation lasted only briefly—the authority announced ceasing investigations as Heng Huy had the land title and it was the families who were illegally depending on the land. In said, however, that the investigation should have been more thorough.

“The provincial authority should be taking a long time to investigate this land issue. They shouldn’t do it for just a short time and release their decision. It isn’t fair to the people in the land dispute,” In added.

Villagers gather in front of a Koh Kong court to support their representatives during the hearing of a land dispute with Heng Huy. Photo taken on April 20, 2022. Supplied.

Almost 200 villagers involved in the land dispute appeared at the Ministry of Interior on March 28 to request the intervention of the minister Sar Kheng. The villagers said a ministry representative had accepted their complaint and promised they would reach out to Heng Huy directly.

However, Pao Nheng, one of the villagers, told CamboJA: “We didn’t see any intervention as they promised. But the opposite happened: we were called for questioning at the Koh Kong provincial court on April 20.”

In total, ten of them were called in for court questioning, while 300 families from Koh Kong province gathered outside the court to show their support.

Nheng told CamboJA that the court did not seem impartial as many villagers were questioned in court, but Heng Huy was never compelled to attend.

“We are always following the court, we are never against the court. But the tycoon Heng Huy is never at the hearing though we have made complaints against him. We are disappointed that it is always us in court, but we still respect the court,” said Nheng. 

CamboJA tried contacting Heng Huy on his phone many times, but he never accepted the calls.