Boys play football on the runway at Ratanakkiri Airport in provincial capital Banlung. The runway will be paved with bitumen and a terminal built as part of an upgrade for the airport, which will also require the land of nearby homeowners who are demanding they be compensated at market rates.
RATANAKKIRI - Banlung residents facing eviction by the Ratanakkiri Airport expansion are threatening a protest that could disrupt the multi-million-dollar renovations which are hoped to boost tourism to the isolated northeastern province.
Chum Rithy, whose home is among the dozens which are likely to be lost as the airport is enlarged, said authorities had earlier agreed to pay compensation but later backtracked and will now only provide payouts for those holding land titles.
"We do not object to the development plan but we can't leave the land with nothing," he said.
"We will not agree to leave without proper compensation," he added, Most of the disputed land was bought from ethnic minority villagers, Rithy said, and is largely undocumented.
"I don't have a land title but I have the recognition paper from the commune authority," Rithy told the Post.
So Thy, another resident facing eviction, said he did not know if he would be compensated for his 3,350 square-meter plot because local authorities had not discussed the matter with him.
"If there is no compensation, then we will protest," Thy said. "I have a recognition letter from commune authority so they have to pay the market price."
Ratanakkiri Airport opened in 1965 but has been closed for the past two years in preparation for upgrades after a plane operated by local carrier PMT Air skidded off the runway in 2005.
Sinn Chan Sereyvutha, who is managing the Ratanakkiri Airport upgrade on behalf of the State Secretariat of Civil Aviation, said that despite lingering questions of compensation, most Banlung residents were excited about the expansion, which it is hoped will kick-start a tourism boom in Cambodia's northeast.
He said the runway will be paved with bitumen and extended from 1,300 meters to 1,500 meters, a terminal for arrivals and departures will be built and improved safety equipment will be installed.
The project is targeted for completion in early 2010 and will cost more than $5 million, Chan Sereyvutha said, adding that the Asian Development Bank would provide a loan for 70 percent of expenses with the government paying the remaining 30 percent.
Ratanakkiri tourism director Tra Nuth Sean said provincial authorities had been trying to solve issues of land compensation since September 2007 and wanted the brewing dispute settled before construction on the airport begins this October.
He said he doubted many of the residents could prove ownership of the land.
"They are people who have migrated from other areas and don't have titles to the land. It is unlikely that they claim to own the land," Nuth Sean said.
Chan Sereyvutha said the ADB was involved in discussions with the government over compensation for land at the airport.
"They will solve the problem in a way that is acceptable to all parties," he said.
The Ratanakkiri airstrip will become Cambodia's fourth tourism-focused airport, following airports in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. It will initially service flights from Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.