Prak Thon says he will give up everything to stop a Chinese company from destroying his pagoda in Koh Kong province’s Kiri Sakor district.
“I’ll allow them to demolish my house, but I will not allow them to destroy the pagoda. I’m satisfied if I die, because it is my religion,” the villager said over the weekend.
The pagoda, which he said villagers built in Koh Sdech commune’s Prek Smach village in 1993, is threatened by a US$3.8 billion development by Union Development Co Ltd on two concessions that amount to more than 45,000 hectares in Botum Sakor and Kiri Sakor districts.
The departure of some 700 volunteer students on Friday, sent by Prime Minister Hun Sen to measure land across the country for villagers affected by land disputes, has not alleviated the fears of Thon and his neighbours that they will soon be evicted because of this project.
Thon is worried that despite a June 14 nationwide order by the prime minister for provincial governors to measure land for all villagers affected by economic land concessions, many will still be left without homes.
“I was happy when I heard the prime minister say that if it affected the site, the authorities had to cut land for the villagers,” he said.
But so far, Thon said, he had not seen any land measured for about 25 families of 190 in the area who are holding out and refusing to relocate despite threats from local authorities he says are trying to cheat them.
The premier would be “destroying himself” if the order was not implemented, because villagers would lose confidence in him, he said.
Even the monks abandoned the pagoda in May, he said, while the villagers who did agree to leave found themselves relocated some 40 kilometres away.
Venerable Thath Ny was the chief of Kiri Kongkear pagoda until authorities told him villagers had agreed to leave and invited him to temporarily stay at the Koh Sdach pagoda.
“I hope my pagoda will not be demolished after what Hun Sen said on June 14,” he said.
Lim Song, a representative of villagers in Botum Sakor district’s Thma Sar commune, said that while he was aware the volunteer students had been dispatched, he would believe the land was being cut out for villagers when he saw it with his own eyes.
“I live frightened that I will lose my house and rice field. I will stop being scared and believe in Hun Sen’s speech when I see the mixed committee come to measure land and give a land title to me,” he said.
Just 27 of the 47 families in his commune had resisted pressure from the company to move out, and those that remained do not trust provincial authorities to implement the prime minister’s order.
The classrooms of the local school, Prek Smach primary, have been empty since May, and 14-year-old Sann Sok wants his teachers to come back.
“I don’t know if I will have the chance to study again or not. I want to know how to read and write like other children, because I don’t want the others to call me a stupid boy,” he said.
One of his teachers was Sorn Sovannara, who said he had no choice but to leave because the district education department would have removed his name from the education ministry’s list of teachers if he resisted.
“What they did was more cruel than the Pol Pot regime. It was only during Khmer Rouge that schools and pagodas were closed. I hope that my school will be opened again after the Prime Minister Hun Sen said about the old policy, new activity for the land system,” he said.
Deputy provincial governor Say Socheat said last week a special committee had been set up to investigate the dispute and that he had travelled to an affected community on June 25 to measure land.
“We cannot cut land from the company. We have to do a provincial report in order to ask advice from the prime minister,” he said.
The Union Development Co. Ltd project will lead to the eviction of 1,143 families in five communes from 1,500 homes earmarked for destruction, according to rights group Adhoc.
Two schools and three pagodas will be removed by the completion of the project, according to Adhoc.
Koh Kong provincial governor Bun Leut said the fate of these families and buildings remained uncertain and that no volunteer students had been dispatched yet to Koh Kong in order to measure land.
“Related to the dispute between villagers and Union [Development Co Ltd], we have to have a meeting with our committee first. I cannot say in advance,” Bun Leut said.
To contact the reporter on this story: May Titthara at firstname.lastname@example.org
Reporting from Koh Kong province