Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Land dispute at mega-airport project leads to protest, scuffle at access road

A villager looks on as construction crews use excavators and bulldozers to prepare land for the massive new airport in Kandal province. Picture taken on July 29, 2021. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan
A villager looks on as construction crews use excavators and bulldozers to prepare land for the massive new airport in Kandal province. Picture taken on July 29, 2021. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan

Landowners at the site of the new airport mega-project starting in Kandal province said the developer is still trying to encroach on their farmland even though they have not agreed to sell the affected land.

Long Sopheak, a villager in Kampong Talong village in Kandal Stung district, told CamboJA that about 300 villagers protested on Monday afternoon after the construction company, the Overseas Cambodia Investment Corporation (OCIC), reportedly sent bulldozers and attempted to close an entry road to farmland.

“The company wants to cut off the road to the villagers’ land inside the project site, they don’t want people to access their land location,” Sopheak said. “If we did not come on time, they would cut off the road and then it would be harder for people to complain as they could not access the farmland.”

According to Sopheak, a flash of violence occurred Monday between villagers and dozens of security guards, who caused minor injuries to a few old women. Dozens of police and military police were also deployed to the protest site that day.

Tuon Vannak, another villager who has a house and farmland on the site of a proposed runway, said the company must address the landowners complaints before clearing their access road.

“We don’t agree with them clearing the road because the company has not yet reached an agreement for me. If they cut off the road at this time, I cannot enter the field and house,” he said.

The disputed access, Road 54, connects neighboring Sa’ang district to National Road 2 in Kandal Stung district. The road has been a flashpoint for protest in the past, and villagers have said previously the developer has tried to control it to gain leverage in the land conflict.

Vannak told CamboJA that he and other villagers who still own land at the runway construction site have set up 10 tents to occupy their farmland and prevent the company from clearing it.

According to local villagers, authorities have continually promised to find a solution for the conflict but have yielded no results. Ouch Sao Voeun, Kandal Stung district governor, mediated the dispute on Monday but did not comment on the issue.

Villagers say that in mid-May, OCIC sent bulldozers to clear people’s rice fields, damaging more than 1 hectare of planted land.  For roughly three months since then, villagers have set up and maintained a tent on their farmland to prevent further encroachment.

So far, about three years since the project first started, more than 300 families and 400 hectares of land spread between three communes in Kandal Stung district and one in Takeo province’s Bati district have been affected as they refuse the compensation prices offered by the company.

Negotiations between these families and the authorities have failed as both public officials and company representatives stand firm on a land compensation price that has previously been rejected by villagers.

Kok Say, who is in charge of land acquisition for the new airport, told CamboJA the company is now continuing to purchase land from villagers based on a price offer of $8 per square meter.

“Many people agree to sell the land to the company, but the remaining protesters are demanding higher prices than the market, so sometimes we cannot please them,” he said. “We continue to maintain a settlement in principle, whether the person is powerful or ordinary people, the price is the same.”

Say denied the developer was trying to cut off the road, saying the firm had only cleared the land it acquired and was not affecting land it hasn’t acquired.

​The airport project is estimated at a development cost of $1.5 billion and is overseen by the conglomerate OCIC, which is owned by the well-connected Oknha Pung Kheav Se, along with the governmental State Secretariat of Civil Aviation.

OCIC specializes in mega-developments such as the new airport and is the firm that expanded Koh Pich and, currently, Koh Norea.

The airport project’s first phase is set to be completed by 2023, with planners anticipating by 2030 to annually receive as many as 30 million passengers at the hub. The project is also part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative project in Cambodia.

Ny Sokha, president of rights group Adhoc, said he welcomed new development but said it must come with justice and fair outcomes.

“We do not hinder development, but there must be the right solution for those affected people, based on law. The solution must be appropriate and fair,” he said, adding that compensation offers should be reasonable and allow people to purchase similar land elsewhere.

“The company offered people the previous rate, so the people could not accept because they could not take the money to buy land elsewhere at the current price. The company should study the new rate,” Sokha said.