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Former soldier Chhem Kern prepares to leave his empty home in Pursat’s Talou commune on Tuesday to seek medical attention in his hometown.
Former soldier Chhem Kern prepares to leave his empty home in Pursat’s Talou commune on Tuesday to seek medical attention in his hometown. Heng Chivoan

Military’s ghost village

In the foothills of the picturesque Cardamom Mountains in Pursat province, the rural landscape is dotted with rows of houses, but inside, almost no one is home.

The immaculate properties stretch into the distance, painted a uniform green and brown. Many are padlocked. They have been that way for years.

The properties were constructed by the government on a social land concession (SLC) in the province’s Talou commune in 2011 to house military veterans. In addition to homes, each soldier was awarded a garden and one and a half hectares of farmland.

The sprawling community is now little more than a ghost village. Just 43 of the 200 homes are said to be occupied. The development this week felt even more sparsely populated than that.

The concession is one of many handed out to impoverished Cambodians under a national land redistribution scheme initiated in 2003. Since the banning of new economic land concessions in 2012, the allocation of new SLCs has rocketed.

While many have welcomed the policy, evidence that local populations have been forcibly evicted to make way for SLCs and claims that they are used as a cover for big business interests have marred the projects.

Wandering past the homes in Talou, one is met only with eerie silence. The sounds and smells of a Cambodian community of this size are nowhere to be found.

On the porch of one of the SLC’s concrete homes, 64-year-old Chhem Kern was leaning over a table, packing his belongings into a small suitcase and green military-style bag.

Kern said he was heading back to his hometown in Svay Rieng province to seek treatment for high blood pressure, because a health centre had yet to be constructed near his new residence.

A scarcity of amenities, he added, could be blamed for the lack of interest in the area.

“It has nothing, except empty houses,” Kern said of the concession, as he zipped up his bag.

“Food is the main problem for us when we live here. I do love the house, because my family would not be able to afford a concrete house otherwise, but there is no market or pagoda, so no one is going to love living here.”

Kern, who spent decades in the army serving under Lon Nol, King Norodom Sihanouk and, most recently, Prime Minister Hun Sen, said he felt as though he had been “abandoned to the jungle” by the government.

With his children still living in Svay Rieng, Kern’s retirement has so far been plagued by loneliness.

“When I’m lying on my hammock in the morning and I hear the monkeys cry, it makes me miss my homeland so much,” he said.

One feature the concession does have is a school. During break times, small groups of children congregate around nearby houses, bringing life to the otherwise quiet surroundings.

Chan Sophea, a retired soldier from Prey Veng province and deputy director of the Cambodian Veterans Association, has managed to eke out a living there, selling refreshments from a wooden shack.

Sophea lounged in a camouflaged hammock wearing matching army trousers as he served a trickle of customers while echoing Kern’s claims that “unfavourable conditions” were behind the empty houses.

Vacant wooden houses built for veterans of the armed forces stand in a line, surrounded by long grass, near Pursat province’s Krovanh Mountain earlier this week.
Vacant wooden houses built for veterans of the armed forces stand in a line, surrounded by long grass, near Pursat province’s Krovanh Mountain earlier this week. Heng Chivoan

“So far, the area has nothing to eat, and paddy cultivation is very difficult,” he said.

Veterans awarded land in the SLC hail from all corners of Cambodia. A lucky-draw system was used to determine which specific plots of land they would be given.

But, Sophea said, many already owned houses elsewhere.“People who have another house, they just live there. Some of them come to have a look at the house here once every three or four months.”

Touch Channy, spokesman for the Ministry of Social Affairs Veterans & Youth Rehabilitation, could not be reached this week.

A senior official at the ministry, who requested anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the media, acknowledged yesterday that many houses awarded under the government initiative were unused.

“The issue of whether they live there or not is a problem that we are thinking about,” he said. “Sometimes they have their old houses in their hometown where they have relatives . . . and some people find it difficult to live in new places.”

The issue extends well beyond the community in Pursat, the official said, with as many as 70 per cent of veterans awarded land opting not to live in their new homes.

But despite its failings, he said the SLC scheme had provided hundreds of homes for “poor people who don’t have houses or land in their hometowns”.

Despite an obvious lack of infrastructure in Talou, the official said the government always builds “schools, markets and health centres, and also gets clean water” supplied to SLCs.

He was not familiar with the situation in the concession but said the ministry would send a delegation from the National Social Land Concession Committee to check on the unoccupied houses and missing infrastructure.

He said the government hoped to address the issue of wasted housing by creating areas for veterans to live that are nearer to their homelands, but was faced with “a lack of funds”.

“As I know, the government has a new plan of not building the houses for them, but providing them some materials or land [instead].”

Back in Pursat, the community’s few residents had ideas of their own about how the issue could be resolved.

“The government should take the free land and hand it to the poor people who don’t have any pieces of land. It’s better than leaving it for nothing, and there are many people who are desperate for it,” said Kern, who was joined on his porch by a couple and their daughter.

Hor Ra, 47, has been living in the area with her husband and 9-year-old daughter for just five months.

Unlike their neighbours, Ra and her husband are not veterans. They had lived on the streets before a former soldier with a vacant home offered them a roof over their heads in exchange for looking after the property and land.

“I love living here because I don’t have a house or land of my own,” she said with a grin, adding that her daughter could now attend school for the first time.

But with no legal rights to the empty property, Ra fears that her family’s time there could be short-lived.

“I don’t know when the owner will come back,” she said.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MOM KUNTHEAR

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