I worry about them [my sons] all the time because I don’t know if they will survive or die
Kampong Chhnang province
In the once-thriving village of Lor Peang, in Kampong Tralach district, work is scarce and men of working age are even scarcer.
Villagers, locked in a bitter, high-profile land dispute for almost 10 years and unable to farm local fields, estimate 90 per cent of their sons have been trafficked to Thailand – where many work on fishing boats notorious for the ill-treatment of workers.
“I worry about them [my sons] all the time, because I don’t know if they will survive or die,” 56-year-old villager Khiev Boeun told the Post.
He faces a problem common to almost every parent in the Ta Ches commune village. Even boys as young as 13 are said to have been smuggled abroad.
“We don’t know who we can depend on any more,” Khiev Boeun said from outside the provincial court house, where the community was trying to file a complaint on September 15 in an attempt to regain the land.
“Our farmland was lost, and I haven’t received any news from my two sons since they went to work in Thailand in 2009.”
Standing nearby, 59-year-old Neang Ngat said her 19-year-old son had crossed the border to Thailand in 2010 in search of work on a fishing boat in order to support the family, which could no longer feed themselves without the ability to harvest rice.
“About 90 per cent of the sons in the village cross illeg-ally to work in Thailand to find money to support their families and send money to their parents,” she said.
The land dispute that has radically changed Lor Peang is far from over. It dates back to 2002 when, villagers claim, more than 500 hectares of their farmland was unlawfully taken by the company KDC International. The company is owned by Chea Kheng, the wife of Industry, Mines and Energy Minister Suy Sem. Chea Kheng is also a high-ranking member of the Cambodia Red Cross.
Families in Lor Peang have frequently filed both individual and joint complaints with the courts in attempts to retake the land, but with no success.
The most recent joint complaint, which requested that KDC International return less than a fifth of the land, was rejected by the chief provincial clerk for Kampong Chhnang on the grounds that the villagers were unable to pay the US$8,000 filing tax.
Villagers are attempting to adapt to hard times, but residents say signs of malnutrit-ion have become increasingly evident among young children in the village. Women have also left in search of work.
Tears streaked the face of 49-year-old Keo Vannak as she explained that her daughter had left the village to work in a bakery in Phnom Penh. Her 19-year-old son is believed to be working on a Thai fishing boat.
He has not sent any money home, however, and Keo Vannak believes he has been cheated by a fishing-boat captain because of his illegal working status.
In order to make money to survive without farmland, Keo Vannak has begun weaving palm leaves to sell as roofing material.
“In one day I can earn about 7,000 riel (US$1.75), which is not much money,” she said.
Life has also changed for one of the few men of working age in Lor Peang.
Sitting beneath a small one-room shack built of wood and palm leaves, 37-year-old Boun Tok lives in one of several homes that are surrounded by miniature plots of rice paddies that residents rely on to produce a meagre amount of rice.
“Now that I don’t have a big plot of farmland to plant rice like before, I just plant rice around my home and go to the field to catch frogs for cooking,” Boun Tok said.
He also said that his 18-year-old son, like most other young men in the village, had been smuggled across the border to Thailand by a broker, who would usually be paid about 300,000 riel (US$75) by the family.
After this, most families no longer hear from their sons.
“They [villagers] know the difficulty of being an illegal migrant worker, but they have to go because they have no work in their village,” Sam Ankea, the Adhoc co-ordinator for Kampong Chhnang province, said.
Sam Ankea added that although there had been no resolution regarding the land dispute, the government should be responsible for providing the residents of Lor Peang with jobs, so they were not forced to seek work illegally.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said disputes over land had the ability to not only completely destroy a community, but were “the human-rights equivalent of a knock-out punch”.
“The fact that men and boys from this area are now rolling the dice to try and earn money on Thai fishing boats, where human trafficking is rife, is a good indication of their desperation,” Robertson said.
“For the aggrandisement of just one already wealthy, elite family, an entire community of families is forced to economically start over from scratch, with little or no land to call their own.”
Robertson described the grim scene on Thai fishing boats, where illegal migrant workers are frequently overworked and “often shot and disposed of at sea”.
“This kind of land dispossession feeds the human trafficking industry in Thailand, and condemns many Cambodian families to stagger into the future without their fathers, sons and husbands, who will go to Thailand to try to earn money and never return,” he said.
Thai Hy, a representative for KDC International, declined to comment on the ongoing land dispute.