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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Grave sites a concern at Sesan

Villagers attend a forum about the Lower Sesan II hydropower dam
Villagers attend a forum about the Lower Sesan II hydropower dam on Saturday in Stung Treng province. The villagers are refusing to relocate if compensation for their buried ancestors is not paid. KIMBERLEY MCCOSKER

Grave sites a concern at Sesan

Ethnic minority villagers who live in the planned reservoir zone of the Lower Sesan II hydropower project along the Sesan and Srepok rivers have said they will not move from their homes unless the dam company and authorities pay for the removal of their ancestors’ remains.

Many of the affected villagers are ethnic Phnong, Lao and other minorities, and revere the spirits of their forebears through ritual and ceremonial burial.

Phan Phavy, 58, a Phnong community representative from Srekor commune, said that preparations for the under-construction 400MW dam, which will be Cambodia’s largest hydropower dam when it goes online in 2017, had led the authorities and Hydro Power Lower Sesan II Company to try to force them to move.

“They [the company and high ranking officials] said that if we do not move, they will flood us until we have nothing to eat and starve to death. We are very upset,” she said.

However, the villagers would be more inclined to accept the resettlement offers if they were given $1,500 to exhume their ancestors’ grave sites and perform ceremonies.

The Lower Sesan II dam will flood an estimated 36,000 hectares of northeastern Cambodia when it is completed in two years’ time. The dam is being built by a joint venture between China’s state-owned Hydrolancang International and Cambodia’s Royal Group, owned by Royal Group head Kith Meng.

Siek Mekong, Srekor commune chief, said the indigenous traditions of the ethnic minorities in the area meant the authorities would be hard pressed to persuade them to move without resorting to violence unless they were also compensated for relocating their grave sites.

As part of the rituals, two buffaloes, two pigs and several chickens and ducks would be sacrificed, and four large jugs of wine would be bought for the “housewarming” festivities.

“Half the buffaloes and pigs must be white and half [must be] black,” he said.

Almost half of the villagers in the Srekor area have already accepted the company’s resettlement offers, which have included 80 square metres of land, a home and 5 hectares of farmland per family.

Seventy per cent of villagers in Kbal Romeas commune have already accepted compensation, Stung Treng Governor Kol Samol said.

For volunteering to relocate now, the villagers were paid an extra $200 per family, he added, whereas the remainder are holding out for funds to pay for the reburial ceremonies.

“However, regarding this problem, our authorities and the company are studying it and hoping that there will be a peaceful way to end the dispute in the very near future,” he said.

A representative of the Lower Sesan II company did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY DANIEL PYE

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