Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Negotiations fail in land dispute linked to new Phnom Penh airport

Company workers use excavators and bulldozers to prepare land for a new airport in Kandal province, June 15, 2021. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan
Company workers use excavators and bulldozers to prepare land for a new airport in Kandal province, June 15, 2021. CamboJA/ Panha Chhorpoan

Negotiations between authorities and people affected by development of the massive new Phnom Penh airport outside the city in Kandal province have failed yet again as officials stand firm on a land compensation price that has previously been rejected by villagers.

The latest impasse came when more than 30 affected people met Tuesday with Kandal provincial Governor Kong Sophorn seeking a solution after one month of protest. Long Sopheak is one of those local villagers and a resident of Kampong Talong village in Kandal Stung district, which is part of where developers have planned to build the 2,600-hectare airport project about 25 kilometers from the capital.

Sopheak told CamboJA that landowners have continued to refuse an offered buyout price of $8 per square meter.

“I think they intend to make people tired of demanding so they finally agree to accept the price, but we won’t, and we call on Samdech Hun Sen to intervene,” said Sopheak, who used an honorific title for the prime minister and met on Tuesday with Governor Sophorn. “We will submit a petition again to the prime minister, I remember Samdech’s word that he will not allow people to be torn by development.”

Sopheak said the governor has also offered landowners an option to exchange their affected parcels for other pieces of land about 3 kilometers from the disputed site. However, this has not been an attractive offer for the villagers, who point out there isn’t yet a specific location yet for that planned swap.

“People also cannot accept this option because the land site promised by the authority is not clear,” he said. “In this [Tuesday] meeting, people just came to listen to him as he tried to oppress us to accept the solution offered by authorities.”

Kandal provincial Governor Sophorn could not be reached for comment on Tuesday, but he told CamboJA last month that hundreds of families had already accepted compensation and supported the government’s development project while other families were demanding a higher price.

Sophorn said then the government compensation could not go higher than what had already been offered.

“If they do not accept the price, we can reserve land in another place nearby for them, but they still will not accept,” he said last month.

The $1.5 billion airport project is being developed by the conglomerate Overseas Cambodia Investment Corporation (OCIC) 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 development company is owned by the well-connected Oknha Pung Kheav Se. 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.

In mid-May, dozens of local people at the site protested after the developer sent tractors to clear their rice fields, damaging more than 1 hectare of planted land. The protestors have set up and maintained a tent to block the access road to the project site.

Local residents say the project has already affected 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.

Villager Lonh Vanna owns land in the area and said developers damaged her rice field last month. Vanna said she has had to leave the land unfarmed for two years since the project started, waiting for a solution to the land dispute.

She said only Hun Sen can address the years-long issue.

“We want to hear from Samdech Hun Sen, and we want to meet Samdech as a last resort,” Vanna said. “We want him to intervene to help address the issue because we don’t believe local authorities.”

Soeng Senkaruna, the senior investigator for rights group Adhoc, observed the Tuesday meeting and said the government and participating companies should research social and environmental impacts in detail before driving ahead with projects.

“We insist that authorities address the issue in advance before starting the project development to avoid human rights abuses and [respect] property rights,” he said, adding that the settlement mechanism to compensate people for lost property is not meant to force people to accept prices they do not agree with.

“Before taking land from people to serve the public interest based on settlement law, [the government] should have reasonable compensation for people. I think that forcing people to accept what they do not agree with by using this law is not right,” he said. “This affects both the company’s reputation and the government’s image in implementing the law with respect for human rights.”