Teng Khorn’s living room is under a tree, his bedroom in a boat hauled up on a slipway for caulking beside the mangroves that lead to his source of income: the sea.
His choice of abode is also his act of defiance against the monolithic Chinese company that burned his seaside house to the ground in Koh Kong’s Botum Sakor district late last month.
The company, Union Development Group, wants him and more than 1,000 other families to quietly move to relocation villages far back from the ocean.
Khorn, however, is having none of it.
“I am not worried that the Chinese firm burned my house,” he said. “We have no home, but we can live in our boat and hide behind the forest and when the Chinese see us, we’ll push it out to the sea.
“When we cook, we will hide in the forest and if the Chinese come, we will flee with our children in our boat.”
Ten members of Khorn’s family are now living in the vessel. If Union Development Group comes after it, Khorn threatens that someone will get killed.
“It will be life and death.”
Rights group Adhoc says Khorn’s family was one of 45 whose houses in Botum Sakor district were burned to the ground in the latest round of Union Development Group forced evictions.
The mangroves and mountains of Kiri Sakor and Botum Sakor are rapidly being cut, cleared and terraformed into a mega-tourism resort covering 45,000 hectares of combined concessions granted in 2008.
The project will obliterate a large part of the Botum Sakor protected area, stretching into the adjacent Koh S’dech marine protected area. More than half of the entire district of Kiri Sakor has been gifted to the company in three separate concessions that also stretch into the adjacent district of Botum Sakor.
Entire hills have been shaved bare, and Khorn’s wife, 33-year-old Neang Nak, says the company’s relocation villages are so barren and infertile that evictees simply cannot sustain themselves there.
“We used to rely on the sea but when we go to live on the new land, we will be starving because we used to have a livelihood and some wood to cut for charcoal,” she said. “Later there will be no more forest, and they will all come back to the sea”.
Phen Tha, 36, is also staying put on her land – in a tent standing on the remains of her burned house – despite the intimidation she was subjected to.
Holding her three-year-old daughter, Tha recounted how company officials aided by police dealt with her attempts to stop them burning her house to the ground in Koh S’dech commune’s Peam Kay village.
“They crossed my arms and held them upward and pointed a gun at me. Even when my little children cried in the forest they did not care. They just demolished my house,” she said. “What can my children depend on when the mother is so poor?”
Rights group Adhoc say Tha and Neang are not alone. Of the 1,143 families that are being displaced by the tourism resort project, Adhoc found that 29 per cent had rejected the relocation offer, instead choosing to fight for their land back.
On Wednesday and Thursday last week, groups of a few dozen protesters confronted police protecting the company’s interests, attempting to block roads.
A force of about a dozen security guards and military officials easily brushed them aside on Wednesday during a minor scuffle. But with frustration growing over the compensation these families have been offered, future confrontations could get much more serious.
Accepting infertile land
A year ago, the relocation project was yet to shift into overdrive.
Now, village after village of identical kit homes have been erected in enclaves set back from the ocean and stretching out from a four-lane highway that cuts through to the road connecting Koh Kong town to Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh.
Some have made a fist of their new homes. One house located on a preferable plot of land at the top of a hill boasts a healthy orchard of mango trees.
But for many others, the couple of hectares they have been compensated lie on unusable soil or steep hills, forcing them to search for external sources of income.
Son Vanny, 49, has seven children, so was granted three hectares of relocation land in Tanuon commune’s Tanuon village about four years ago. The land is so infertile that many of her neighbours have just packed up and gone to Thailand or Phnom Penh to look for work, she said.
“We see the houses; they look like ghost houses,” she said. “If the people have better living conditions in the new place, they will keep living there and no one would have sold their house and gone to work in Thailand.
“I could always afford food while I was living at the old place since I could sell cashew nuts for money, but at the new place, we cannot grow crops. I depend only on selling charcoal, but it is not every day.”
Kem Rithy, who remains the Peam Kay village chief despite relocating in 2010, said 19 families in his village alone had already decided to go back to their old land.
“Some houses have been locked since the people left to find a job abroad, or in Phnom Penh, or went back to fishing at their old place,” he said. “Most of the people return to their old place since they could not adapt to the working environment for Chinese.”
A report released last week by NGOs Cambodia Human Rights Protection Association and Housing Rights Network in Cambodia found that 70 per cent of those already relocated depended on fishing and had returned to their old homes.
Defiance from both sides
Kiri Sakor district governor Khem Chandy says he does not support the forcible evictions and is looking into problems at the relocation sites.
“Recently, I heard that the people were evicted and they have to pull down their houses, and I also sent my assistant to check their identities,” he told journalists last week. “We will negotiate with the inter-ministry in order to find houses and new locations for them to live. I have prepared this task already,” he said.
But Union Development Group, whose representatives could not be reached for comment yesterday and have never responded to Post inquiries, don’t seem interested in negotiation.
With $3.6 billion reportedly to be invested in the mega-resort and another $11.5 billion earmarked for a mysterious steel, rail and port project connecting Preah Vihear province to the resort concession, those orders are doubtless coming from very high up.
Last week the company went to lengths to stop the press from reaching a community of those who had defied their eviction orders, employing the private security firm Kim Security Company to do so.
When a group of NGOs and journalists drove towards one site where the community had dug in, they were blocked by three security officials in military fatigues.
One of them, who declined to be named, said he was just following orders.
“The Chinese firm says they have already paid, so they do not care and that the land belongs to them.
“I just adhere to orders.The burning of people’s houses is not related to my company,” he said.