Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Villagers’ lands cleared for mega-airport project despite ongoing disputes

Excavators clear the rice fields of villagers to build the new mega airport in Kandal province. Photo taken on February 9, 2022. Supplied
Excavators clear the rice fields of villagers to build the new mega airport in Kandal province. Photo taken on February 9, 2022. Supplied

Despite a land dispute that has yet to be settled, a dozen excavators are being deployed to dig up the rice fields and wetlands belonging to villagers of Kampong Talong, in Kandal Stung district’s Boeung Khyang commune, for the new Phnom Penh International Airport in Kandal province.

Ouch Saovoeun, the governor of Kandal Stung district, said that dozens of police and military officials are being dispatched to prevent any fighting and to implement the instruction of provincial authorities to carry out the works.

“We are waiting to resolve the dispute with the villagers for [$8 per square meter], and if they have disagreed, it is their business,” Saovoeun said. He emphasized the need to develop the country and to complete the $1.5 billion mega-airport project, which also includes the building of a dam to protect the airport from floods.

Toun Vannak, 48, from Kampong Talong village, said that about 100 of the joint forces arrived around 4 a.m. on Wednesday to protect the heavy machinery.

“We dare not go to the dispute sites because the police forces are everywhere,” he said. He added that the authorities have threatened to arrest them, which has intimidated the villagers and restricted their rights of protest.

Developed on 2,600 hectares of land in the Kandal Stung district, about 25 kilometers from the capital, the $1.5 billion airport project is a joint-venture between local conglomerate Overseas Cambodia Investment Corp (OCIC), owned by the well-connected Oknha Pung Kheav Se, and the government’s State Secretariat of Civil Aviation.

Vannak said the company has stopped negotiating with the villagers and is standing firm on its offer of $8 per square meter – about one-tenth the market rate – or the option of receiving land elsewhere in the surrounding area.

“We disagreed with the offer and we are now submitting a petition for state institutions to intervene,” Vannak continued. “We don’t have any land for cultivating rice paddy from now on.” He said they also stand to lose their residential houses, even sooner.

In September 2021, nine villagers were arrested and charged with intentional violence with aggravating circumstances, obstructing a public official with aggravating circumstances, and incitement to commit a felony – under articles 494 and 495 of the Criminal Code. Those found guilty can be jailed for up to five years. However, the nine villagers were released on bail.

Samrong, another affected villager who had not been paid for half a hectare of his rice field, said that the deployment of police forces is intimidating the villagers and breaking their spirit.

“Armed forces should protect people, but on the contrary, they are protecting ill-intentioned people. So it is an injustice for villagers to be victimized,” he said.

“We do not know what else to say because we have already submitted a petition through all ministries and departments,” Samrong said.

Excavators clear the rice fields of villagers to build the new mega airport in Kandal province. Photo taken on February 9, 2022.
Excavators clear the rice fields of villagers to build the new mega airport in Kandal province. Photo taken on February 9, 2022. Supplied

On Wednesday, they submitted a petition seeking the intervention of the Ministry of National Assembly-Senate Relations and Inspection. In late December 2021, they had also asked the CPP’s top leaders for help.

“Our villagers just stand by to watch [the excavators clear our land], and we dare not yell anymore,” due to the fear of being arrested, he said.

He said that the villagers’ land titles do not encroach on state land, so the authorities should provide a suitable compensation based on the market price.

The villagers have also put up “private owned” signs on their lands to try to prevent the airport developers from moving in on their land without a mutually agreed settlement.

The first phase of the airport project is scheduled to be completed by 2023, and the airport is expected to receive 30 million passengers a year by 2030.

Those living at the site of the planned airport, however, have had their lives upended as the developers push ahead before a payout is finalized.

Two years since the project began in 2019, more than 350 affected families – from three communes in Kandal Stung district and one commune in Takeo province’s Bati district – are struggling to get by.

In 2021, the Cambodia Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) released a report that recorded, in the same year, 169 cases of land disputes amounting to 52,601 hectares and affecting 17,033 families.

Soeng Senkaruna, an ADHOC senior investigator, said that land conflicts continue to occur and involve powerful tycoons and high-ranking officials, often exhibiting a lack of research on the social environmental impacts of the developments in question and suitable resolutions.

“We are still worried that people have suffered from land conflict, especially villagers who have been prosecuted,” he said.

He noticed that relevant authorities have ignored the pleas and legal proceedings of villagers, but have carried out the legal complaints of powerful people.

The report found that 66 of those cases involved violations by people in power, while 27 cases involved tycoons. Moreover, 157 people pursued lawsuits, while 17 were imprisoned.

Senkaruna added that in land dispute cases, the courts have often failed to provide justice for victims. Chhoeun Sochet, Kandal’s provincial police chief, declined to comment on the matter.​He referred questions to provincial governor Kong Sophorn, who could not be reached for comment.