Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Villagers in land dispute hope new commune councillors will help

A Chinese company's warehouse is seen at the site of a land dispute in Trapaing Pring commune in Tbong Khmum province. Picture taken May 28, 2022. CamboJA/ Khuon Narim
A Chinese company's warehouse is seen at the site of a land dispute in Trapaing Pring commune in Tbong Khmum province. Picture taken May 28, 2022. CamboJA/ Khuon Narim

Dambe district, Tbong Khmum province: Residents of Trapaing Pring commune who are involved in a land dispute with a Chinese company say they’ll be voting for whichever commune councillor they think can best help them when they go to the polls this weekend. 

Sim Varn, a 33-year-old from Sre Praing village, used to cultivate six hectares of farmland until Chinese firm Harmony Investment occupied it as part of a 1,200 hectare concession, paying her $500 in compensation.

The mother of four is now struggling to support her family after her husband, Hoeun Sineath,  was imprisoned for allegedly damaging machinery belonging to the company during a protest in 2020.

“It is difficult that we don’t have enough rice, or money to pay the children’s school fees and for electricity,” she said.

“I will vote to support whoever provides us with good service,” Ms. Van said, adding that previously when she sought help with her land dispute case the commune councillors “discriminated and were nepotistic.”

Harmony Investment purchased more than 1,000 hectares of land from people living in Dambe district in 2011, according to provincial administration chief Mao Dun. Hundreds of villagers from Sre Praing and Bosnor protested when their land was taken and in 2020, about 20 people were arrested and many were only released from jail after they agreed to stop protesting.

Sim Varn sits in her home in Trapaing Pring commune, Sre Praing village, Tbong Khmum province. Picture taken May 28, 2022. CamboJA/ Khuon Narim

Ban Sokha, 31, from Bosnor village, used to grow cassava and corn on her five-hectare plot, but now she is also involved in the land dispute. She said she’d cast her ballot for a commune chief who will serve people’s interest.

“We will vote for whoever can help us,” she said. “It is difficult to rely on commune chiefs because they have promised to solve our problem before and when they got money, they neglected the problem and people remained suffering,” Ms. Sokha said.

Both women were reluctant to say who they were voting for due to fear of repercussions, but noted they’d seen campaigning in their villages by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, opposition Candlelight Party, the Grassroots Democratic Party, and the royalist Funcinpec Party.

“I don’t want to say,” Ms. Varn said. “When we have expressed opinions, it always becomes politically divisive.”

Horm Phen, a 47-year-old resident of Srey Praing village,  isn’t involved in a land dispute herself but said while the ruling CPP has been campaigning on its past achievements, the Candlelight Party has promised to better people’s livelihoods.

In the last commune elections in 2017, the CPP gained 3,200 votes in Trapaing Pring commune while the CNRP won 1,889 votes.  The CPP won the most seats.

This time, however, Kan Ry, the Candlelight Party commune council candidate, is optimistic that his party could gain more commune councillor seats than the CPP.

“The majority of people are supporting me, but they dare not show up because there is intimidation,” he said.

Mr. Ry, who used to be a councillor with the now-banned CNRP,  says that he has campaigned in all 12 villages in his commune ahead of the June 5 vote, educating people about his party’s 7-point platform.

He has also promised to resolve land disputes for villagers.

“If there is a land dispute related to powerful people when I am elected commune councillor, I would follow my constituents wishes and not favor businessmen over them because villagers’ tears drop when powerful people grab their land,” Mr. Ry said.

Kan Ry, the Candlelight Party candidate, speaks with CamboJA during an interview at his home in Tbong Khmum province. Picture taken May 28, 2022. CamboJA/ Khuon Narim

The Candlelight Party candidate said the CPP had been trying to win people’s votes in the commune by giving away sarongs, while his own campaign is being hampered and his supporters are being threatened with having their social grant benefits removed.

“I think I will win more commune councilor seats but I am not confident I’ll become commune chief because they [CPP officials] went house to house to try and convince people and gave them gifts,” Mr. Ry said.

“Last week, when I was campaigning in Bosnor and Sre Praing villages, there were 40 people who joined me. At my next event only nine people joined because the authorities had threatened them,” he said.

In Trapaing Pring, Mr. Ry will be running against incumbent commune chief Mom Sabun, who has served for four mandates in the commune chief post.

“The important message we have is that the country has developed,” Mr. Sabun said. “The Cambodian People’s Party will continue to win because we have addressed all concerns for citizens.”

Villagers driving pass the CPP and Candlelight Party’s signs in Trapaing Pring commune, Tbong Khmum Province. Picture taken May 28, 2022. CamboJA/ Khuon Narim

Regarding land issues, he said he has practice in resolving disputes, including out of court by getting the relevant stakeholders to compromise.

“The resolving of the land disputes are almost at an end,” Mr. Sabun said. “It is now private land, they can’t enter anymore.”

But the Grassroots Democratic Party’s candidate, Khun Sa An, said that a commune chief from his party would resolve the land issue for villagers.

“What has the Chinese company developed on that land?” he asked. “They should give it to villagers for cultivating,”

The Grassroots Democratic Party’s banner installed on a pagoda gate in Kambrers village in Tbong Khmum province. Picture taken May 28, 2022. CamboJA/ Khuon Narim