Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

While hundreds sign final offer for decade-plus Koh Kong land dispute, holdouts remain

Villagers wait on line for the land title lottery in Botum Sakor district’s Ta Noun commune, photo taken on October 21. CamboJA/ Khuon Narim
Villagers wait on line for the land title lottery in Botum Sakor district’s Ta Noun commune, photo taken on October 21. CamboJA/ Khuon Narim

Koh Kong province’s Botum Sakor district: Last month, more than one thousand families from Koh Kong’s Botum Sakor and Kiri Sakor districts accepted a land titling agreement, ending their longstanding dispute against the powerful Union Development Group (UDG), and leaving just a small number of holdouts.

“This policy is injust for victims like me as the resolution was forced [on us]. It is unfair by giving us smaller land,” said Bun Sarin, one of only two people from Botum Sakor district’s Ta Noun commune who refused to sign the final October 22 offer brokered by the government on behalf of the well-connected Chinese firm. Across the affected communes, around 100 families turned down the final offer.

Speaking from his home in Toul Por village, a relocation site Sarin has lived in since being forcibly evicted from his 12 hectares of land in 2010, the 56-year-old said he was upset the government decided to put an end to the dispute without a suitable settlement.

“What I have understood is this policy is to end disputes, and if we accept that [compensation], we will lose the right to demand more,” he said. “They should hold discussions with citizens who are the victims to understand each dispute. I cannot accept this policy.”

More than one thousand families have been fighting UDG for adequate compensation since being forced off their land more than a decade ago to make way for a $3.8 billion luxury resort set to take up about 20 percent of Cambodia’s coastline.

While Sarin insisted he would keep fighting, the government said that October 22 would be the final chance for 1,333 families to join a land titling lottery.

For those who didn’t take part by the deadline: “The National Authority for Land Dispute Resolution and the Koh Kong administration considers that you have given up your right in receiving a resolution by the government policy,” read the letter from the provincial administration.

Bun Sarin, one of the villagers who refused the compensation offer, talks to reporters at his house, photo taken on October 21. CamboJA/ Khuon Narim

The families impacted by the development were divided into three groups for compensation — based on calculations by authorities as to their original land claims — according to information provided by Koh Kong provincial deputy Governor Sok Sothy during an October 11 meeting with the Ministry of Land Management and National Authority for Land Dispute Resolution.

The first group of 247 families would be given $9,000, 0.5 hectares of land for a house, and 3 hectares of land for farming. The second group of 255 families would get 2 hectares of farm land, and the last group of 831 families would get 1 hectare.

In 2008, the government awarded UDG 36,000 hectares of economic land concessions and granted a further 9,100 hectares three years later, according to VOD. A 2012 report by the Community Legal Education Center found that more than 1,140 families were forced off of 10,000 hectares within the first five years of the development.

In September 2020, the U.S Treasury Department sanctioned UDG for the seizure and demolition of resident’s land for the development project, which includes an international airport that the U.S. claims could be used by the Chinese military — though the Cambodian government denies the charge.

A decade of fighting takes its toll

Among those who took part in the lottery and signed the final October 22 agreement, some said they were unhappy with the resolution and agreed only because they were left with no other options.

I am tired of struggling to travel to the provinces and Phnom Penh again and again and not seeing any resolution,” said Chuon San, 55, who also lives in Toul Por village and had been involved in advocacy for about 12 years since being removed from his 10 hectares of land.

“I decided to accept this offer [of 1 hectare] because there is no better choice as for 10 years we spent a lot of money and energy,” San said.

“We are tired of protesting and listening to their excuses,“ he said, adding that he forced himself to accept compensation as something was better than nothing.

Chuon San, who agreed to receive 1 hectare compensation in exchange for the 10 hectares he lost, speaks with reporters in his home, photo taken on October 22. CamboJA/ Khuon Narim

While San previously supported his family as a successful rice farmer, he has had to work as construction worker and a motor-taxi driver since his forced eviction. He has also had to rely on financial support from his children, as well as on bank loans.

“I could farm about 160 bags of rice per year at the old place, but now I have nothing to do with farming,” San said.

The relocation site San and his neighbors were moved to was supposed to allow for farming, but the land quality is too poor.

“At the new land, I cannot plant any crops, not even coconut, cassava or rice, because it’s a white sand land and in the rainy season it is flooded,” he said. “I was furious that they promised to give us farmland but in reality, it is forest land that cannot be cultivated.”

San and his neighbors had spent much of the past decade calling for adequate compensation, traveling to the provincial capital and Phnom Penh to meet with officials and hold protests. But, he said, the experience wore residents down to the point where they felt they had no choice but to take the final compensation agreement.

“I want to keep [fighting] with them but the majority accepted. I felt hopeless, then I decided to accept because they did not allow me to protest,” he explained.  

Srey Sopha, 38, originally from Peay Kay village in Kiri Sakor district’s Koh Sdech commune, attended a lottery to receive a land title for 3.5 hectares in Toul Por village, along with $9000 in compensation.

“I decided to move to start a new life. It is a nice place because it is near the main road, has electricity and has a health care center. It’s a better place than my old village, and I can make a small business on the road,” she said.

Though the plot is smaller than Sopha’s old land, which was 5 hectares, she said she was relieved to at least now have a land title.

“The government didn’t allow us to stay anymore. We lived there for 10 years without any legal title but now we have it,” she said.

A map of the land compensation plots created by the Koh Kong provincial authority, photo taken on October 22. CamboJA/ Khuon Narim  

Rights groups have long criticized the development, from the first evictions until the most recent final resolutions.

Hour In, provincial coordinator at rights group Licadho, said the hard deadline and lack of negotiation demonstrated how the government more often works on behalf of the companies involved.

“I think that [authorities] have no responsibility to facilitate the resolving of the dispute,” he said, noting that many families had been pushed off far more land than they were awarded.

“The decision by the authorities is a unilateral decision in which there is no discussion with villagers, so the villagers continue to suffer from the development project,” In said.

“Authorities should facilitate a proper resolution, not to force them to accept a policy that isn’t fair.”

Neth Pheaktra, spokesman of the Environment Ministry, referred requests for comment to the committee resolving the dispute, while Seng Loth, spokesman at the Land Management Ministry, could not be reached.

While 172 families lost their land in Kiri Sakor’s Prek Khsach commune, only 40 families took the offer of 3.5 hectares and $9000, according to commune chief Ream Rom.

“Some residents did not agree [to take the deal] due to small compensation being offered,” he said.

“If they don’t agree, it does mean they have given up their rights,” Rom said.

In Botum Sakor’s Thmar Sar commune, only eight families out of 220 have refused the offer of 2 hectares of land, according to commune chief Ith Koun. All of them had owned much more land prior to the evictions, he noted.

“They want to swap the land but the government has no policy to exchange what they had been occupying according to their land size.”

Sek Monyrith, Kiri Sakor district governor, said that there are 680 families in his district who have been affected by the development project

“The majority of those families have agreed to receive the government policy,” he said.

According to Monyrith, half of the 217 families offered the $9000 and 3.5 hectares of land agreed to the resolution. Around 75 percent of the 103 families offered 2 hectares of farmland signed the resolution, while 90 percent of the 360 families offered one hectare agreed.

Hak Leng, Botum Sakor district governor, declined to give the number of holdouts in his district, saying the working group is still calculating the figures.

Meanwhile, according to Leng, UDG has completed 90 percent of the Dara Sakor international airport.

A Union Development Group luxury hotel in construction in Botum Sakor district, photo taken on October 22. CamboJA/ Khuon Narim
A Union Development Group luxury hotel in construction in Botum Sakor district, photo taken on October 22. CamboJA/ Khuon Narim

Final hope

Despite the government’s hard deadline, the handful of holdouts hope they can still receive a better offer.

Preap Leakhna, 35, from Kiri Sakor district’s Prek Khsach commune, turned down the offer of 3.5 hectares and $9000, saying that the resolution is unfair, and not transparent.

Leakhna, who previously owned 8 hectares of land, said that she and the other approximately 100 families will continue to protest. She said most of them, like her, held far more land than is being offered in exchange.

“I cannot accept this agreement [of 3 hectares] because my previous land was bigger,” Leakhna said.

“I am still going to protest until there is a resolution”, she added.

Deputy provincial governor Sok Sokthy, who is in charge of resolving the land dispute, declined to discuss the situation in depth but suggested there may yet be hope for the holdouts.

“Until now I cannot give an answer because it has not yet been completely resolved,” he said.

“We are proceeding to resolve it step-by-step but this week we are on vacation — next week we will continue,” he said, before hanging up the phone.

For Sarin, from Toul Por village, the loss of income from the farm he had owned since 1997 means he has little choice but to keep fighting.

Prior to his eviction, he earned between $250 and $500 a month from the rice, coconut, and cassava he farmed. He now fishes for a living, something that has grown more difficult with the badly worsening catch Cambodia has seen in recent years. To make ends meet, he has had to take out two microfinance loans totaling nearly $7,500.

“This development doesn’t make any profits for local citizens because we lose our incomes and cannot cultivate on our land since we are forced to leave,” Sarin said.

Though he has fought for a decade, sometimes facing violence from security forces, Sarin said his resolve has not weakened.

“Recently there was a soldier who threatened me… [saying] if we don’t accept the 1 hectare of land they offered, we will get nothing, so this means it’s affecting my life,” he said. Sarin noted that the government treated those demanding fair compensation as inciters and opponents, rather than victims of a powerful company with more than enough money to pay villagers.

“I am really exhausted and shocked about this forcible policy, and I really regret that we have spent a lot of time struggling for more than 10 years to protect our lands,” Sarin said.

“But I still reject it. Even when the deadline comes, I want to meet those high officers to listen to their voice and raise my concerns.”