Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Two people detained for visiting farmland being cleared for Kandal airport

Police erect barricades blocking a road to residents' farmland, located at the site of the newly planned airport in Kandal Stung district on September 7, 2021. Photo Supplied
Police erect barricades blocking a road to residents' farmland, located at the site of the newly planned airport in Kandal Stung district on September 7, 2021. Photo Supplied

At least two people affected by a new airport project in Kandal province were briefly detained for questioning by authorities on Wednesday after they visited their farmland, which is being cleared by airport developer OCIC. The arrest was made just a day after authorities blocked the road leading to the new Phnom Penh airport project in Kandal province on Tuesday.

40-year-old Heang Heak and her 18-year-old son were brought in for questioning at the provincial police station this morning after taking pictures at their family farmland. She told CamboJA that they were stopped by police on their way back from the site.

“My son took some pictures of the farmland, then the authorities came and asked me why we entered the forbidden place,” she said. “Then they drove us in a car to Takhmao city.”

At the police station, she said, she was asked to thumbprint a contract pledging not to visit the field anymore, as it was in a restricted area.

“They told me that they would not take my land and they will solve it for me, but I don’t how,” she said.

Hundreds of families have been locked in disputes over the $1.5 billion airport project developed by Overseas Cambodia Investment Corp (OCIC), which is owned by the well-connected Oknha Pung Kheav Se. The conflict has lasted for more than three years.

“They warned me not to come out [to demand compensation] and to be careful or they would arrest me and my husband, and all my property will be lost,” Heak said. “I have both land and a house in that location. If I do not come out to protest, who will help me? I am very sad.”

Heak’s house is about 400 meters away from other houses in the village. She said that the police were now stationed outside her house.

“I am really worried about safety because my house is far from the village and my husband cannot enter the house,” she said. “They said my husband is the first to come out for demanding.”

Her husband, Toun Vannak, told CamboJA that the authorities are now threatening his family and other families whose lives and property have been impacted by the development.

“I think they violate the law and abuse human rights,” he said. “They threatened my wife, while I am not allowed to enter my house. I am targeted as a representative of the people in leading protests for these demands.”

Vannak said the police took his son’s phone and deleted all the pictures, claiming that the pictures were taken in a restricted area and were disrupting the company’s work.

Another villager, Sem Sokly, said that the arrest was a way of threatening people not to protest anymore. Despite this, she said, she and other people will not give up until a solution is found.

“We must fight for our land, because this land is for our livelihood,” she said. “We still call on Samdech Hun Sen and Lok Chumteav Bun Rany Hun Sen to help. [We], the people just want to live — I do not want anything much.”

She said that no authorities or company representatives had met with people yet. Provincial police chief Chhoeun Sochet could not be reached for comment.

Kandal Stung district police chief Leng Sokrun confirmed that two people were briefly detained for questioning before being released.

“There is no problem, and no detention, authorities just took them for questioning after they entered the forbidden place and took pictures,” he said.

Hundreds of police and military police have been deployed to block the road leading to the new $1.5 billion Phnom Penh airport project in Kandal amid ongoing land clearing operations.

Am Sam Ath, deputy director of monitoring at rights group Licadho, said that only a peaceful solution can end land disputes.

“Using force to threaten would provoke violence, and we are worried that this confrontation would lead to violence and arrests if the issue was not resolved properly,” he said. “Companies invest for profit, but affected people should also get a fair solution.”