In sleepy Sre Preang town in Preah Vihear province, two abandoned bulldozers sit on either side of the street in front of Brame Commune Hall. Seized in 2014 by a group of ethnic Kuoy villagers to protest land clearing by Chinese sugar company Rui Feng, the two machines symbolise a struggle that has defined this area for much of the past decade.
It is also defining the race for commune chief here – pitting an activist on the frontlines of the fight to stop the company’s sugar plantation against a candidate who says the community must work alongside it.
The seeds of this conflict were sown in 2010, when the Cambodian government granted Rui Feng and its four subsidiaries economic land concessions (ELCs) stretching across 40,000 hectares of land across Tbeng Meanchey district.
In 2012, when the company began clearing the land they claimed was their own, Kuoy villagers began an aggressive campaign to halt progress. Their strategies have included squatting on farmland, putting themselves in the way of bulldozers and confiscating the company’s machinery.
This resistance is now embodied in Khum Rany, the 27-year-old Cambodia National Rescue Party commune chief candidate, who has staked her campaign on the issue.
The third of four children, Rany left school in sixth grade to work in her family’s rice fields. Her parents decided her working would allow her older brother and sister to finish their respective educations.
Rany only took notice of Rui Feng’s activities in 2013, when the company cleared 5 hectares of her family’s rice fields to make way for the sugar plantation.
Distressed by her feelings of powerlessness, she began looking for opportunities to educate herself, attending workshops hosted by Ponlok Khmer – an organisation that advocates for the land rights of ethnic minorities – and by the rights group Adhoc in Preah Vihear and Phnom Penh.
At these conferences, Rany began learning about ELCs and their surrounding conflicts, as well as about the rights of Cambodia’s ethnic minorities living on their ancestral lands.
“All of my rice field was completely cleared and grabbed. I have pain from losing the land, so I joined community work and have tried to learn laws involving indigenous people and ELCs,” she said.
By 2014, she was fully engaged in the effort to stop the company, sleeping near rice fields with other villagers to prevent Rui Feng bulldozers from clearing them in the night.
In December 2014, nearly 200 villagers, including Rany, surrounded two Rui Feng bulldozers preparing to clear a rice field.
They mounted the bulldozers and demanded the drivers head to the commune hall. The drivers initially refused but, likely realising the odds were not in their favour, soon relented.
Intending to hold the bulldozers for as long as they could, the villagers removed the batteries and camped around the vehicles overnight, saying they would only return them if Rui Feng, whose representatives declined to comment for this article, agreed to return what the villagers consider stolen farmland to the community.
When provincial court officials arrived with police and six mechanics, insisting they were just there to repair the bulldozers, they found villagers holding petrol-filled containers.
“We held gasoline [as a threat] to burn [the bulldozers], killing them and us if they had managed to fix [them] and drive away,” she said.
Today, Rany speaks of the event not as a great victory, but as a bittersweet lesson.
“Hundreds of machines have been clearing the farmland and we always try to stop it and sleep at our rice fields,” she said. “We managed to seize only two and brought [them] to the commune hall.”
“[The bulldozers] are a legacy for the next generations, the machines that destroyed their farmland.”
In late 2016, Rany and her family once again found their land under threat. This time, however, it did not come directly from Rui Feng, but the state. In addition to the 5 hectares they lost to Rui Feng in 2013, Rany’s family says it has the right to farm on 6 hectares of land across the road from the company's processing plant.
In order to protect the area from potential land grabs, Rany’s family, along with 18 other families with plots of land nearby, started constructing small wooden homes from which they could watch over their land.
On October 15, the Preah Vihear Forestry Administration’s then-director, Ith Phomara, arrived at the scene with a group of Forestry Administration officials, police and Military Police officers to tell the villagers they had built the homes illegally on land belonging to the government.
Although the villagers protested that a former Brame commune chief granted them written permission to farm the area in 2007, the Forestry Administration officials began tearing their houses down. Unbeknownst to Rany and the other villagers, a change to the boundary of neighbouring Chheb district had invalidated their claim to the land.
Rany attracted Phomara’s attention when she began photographing the wreckage of six homes with her cellphone. She accuses Phomara of slapping her twice in the face when she refused to stop.
Two days later, lawyer Sek Sophorn said Rany approached him at his Phnom Penh office to ask for help in filing a complaint against Phomara. Sophorn agreed to help her and went to the Preah Vihear Provincial Court in early November, where he submitted six witnesses for the prosecution’s consideration.
But on May 9, he received notice from the court that Rany’s case had been dismissed. Phy Sithorng, a spokesperson for the Preah Vihear Provincial Court, said that while she could not comment specifically on Rany’s case, the dismissal signified that “the court could not find evidence” to support the claims.
Phomara, who now works as an official in Preah Vihear’s Provincial Agriculture Department, said he was unaware of the case’s dismissal before cutting short the conversation.
Rany said that she will likely appeal the case after the elections. The small house her family built to protect their farmland remains standing. “We will never leave the land,” she said. “I agree to die on it.”
Bat Dom, head of the CNRP in Brame commune, said he first asked Rany to run for commune chief nearly a year ago. “Rany is brave and has the ability to lead the community to protest against the land grab,” he said. “It is time we gather real nationalists as candidates to compete with the ruling party.”
For CNRP Preah Vihear’s working group chief, Thuon Put, Rany’s campaign has an obvious PR appeal.
“Rany is very popular, she is a female, she gets support from the community and is a good advocate for community rights, and she can solve the problems of the community,” he said.
Brame’s current commune chief, Miech Saing of the opposition, though, said he was not completely prepared to trust her. He took office nine months ago after the commune chief Brame elected in 2012 defected to the CPP, but Saing said he decided not to run again.
“Rany volunteered to run [for commune chief]; she is loyal to the party, but I do not believe in her 100 percent yet,” said Saing. “But if she is elected commune chief and she does not do good, if she betrays the party, people will remove her from the position, like the previous [commune chief].”
Despite his reservations, Saing sees Rany’s candidacy as an opportunity to “strengthen the party”. “I am 55,” he said. “I want to promote the lady.”
Thean Heng, 58, who will oppose Rany as the CPP’s candidate for commune chief, seemed unconcerned about the upstart activist, declaring that he would win “90 or 100 percent” of the votes in the commune.
A former provincial police officer and father of four adult children, Heng, with his grandfatherly charm, potbelly and welcoming smile, indeed resembles an easygoing small-town cop.
Sitting in mud-flaked trousers on a table beneath his stilted home, Heng shrugged off the CNRP’s anti-Rui Feng grievances.
The villagers of Brame commune, he said, voted for the CNRP in the last commune elections because they thought the opposition party would force the company out of Preah Vihear.
“They lied that if the CNRP won they would have dismissed the company, but it won and could not dismiss it.”
Heng said he and Rany enjoy a “simple”, neighbourly relationship, though he dismissed her as the inexperienced and naive product of an NGO-engineered ideology. “Some NGOs propagandised to villagers to protest and dismiss [the] company from developing sugarcane, but they could not because the government permitted the company to invest,” he said.
Instead of resisting, Heng said, the villagers should instead lobby Rui Feng to contribute to the local community by financing the construction of additional roads and schools. Heng said that he would further pursue a development-friendly agenda as commune chief by seeking government resources to electrify the entire commune. At present, only residents living near the main road have reliable electricity, he said.
Asked about Rany’s alleged mistreatment by Phomara, Heng said he was unaware of the situation, and argued that she and the other villagers had no right to be on the land in the first place.
Some villagers, he contended, saw the ongoing land dispute with Rui Feng as an excuse to occupy land and claim it as their own. “I hope the company and the people can live together,” he said. “Opposition against the company is meaningless.”
Rany’s populist message appears to reverberate with Brame’s villagers.
Poeun Seung, 36, said she lost 3 hectares of land to Rui Feng in February of this year, which has only reaffirmed her urge to protest the company. She does so as often as twice each month.
As Seung told it, this sometimes involves nothing more than waving down bulldozer drivers as they prepare to clear a field. “Chinese workers will stop immediately,” she said. “But if district or provincial authorities are present, the workers from the company just continue.”
Seung’s friend and neighbour Sok Pisoy said she hopes the next commune chief will succeed in taking land that once belonged to Brame residents back from Rui Feng. Without volunteering for which candidate she will vote, Pisoy said she already made her decision.
Seung, who also did not specify for whom she will vote, said she encouraged Rany to run when she found out about her candidacy. “Rany experienced a lot of events,” she said. “She went to meetings and learned about the law.”
At a shop down the road from Seung’s home, Dan Yanna, 45, also expressed her enthusiasm for Rany’s candidacy. “Rany is brave,” said Yanna, who particularly approves of the candidate’s willingness to involve herself in direct confrontations with Rui Feng employees. “When she sees the company authorities, she blames them for clearing the land,” she said.
Yanna, a divorced mother of three, said that she lost around 5 hectares of land shortly after Rui Feng began its operations in Preah Vihear in 2012. Speaking of the bulldozers in front of the commune hall, Yanna said Rui Feng must first return the land they have stolen before recouping their machines.
At the commune pagoda, Phan Vin, 61, waits for her uncle, one of the commune’s two monks, to return home for lunch. Vin said she hopes Rany, a “loyal lady”, will win the election. Like the other three women interviewed, Vin also was present for the bulldozers’ confiscation. Now, she said, she continues to challenge Rui Feng land grabs by sleeping on vulnerable farmland with other villagers.
Despite support among villagers concerned about the company, running for commune chief has come with some problems for Rany.She claims to have received a call from an unidentified number in which a voice announced he would contribute $250 to her funeral costs.
“I knew it was just a threat,” she said. “I told him to keep the money for his parents’ funerals.”
More crucially, she is aware that being commune chief would place her in a situation far more difficult and complex than what she has encountered as an activist. “I don’t have high education, I don’t know a lot about management skills [or the] administration of communes,” she said.
At the centre of her campaign is a promise to endow the people of Brame with a communal land title, which would allow Brame’s Kuoy community to take official, collective ownership of what they consider their ancestral lands.
This process is notoriously difficult, however, and requires cooperation of officials at the district and provincial level. A 2016 report on communal land titles by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights found communal land titles “arduous and protracted, and almost impossible for the communities to obtain without external assistance”.
Given that the company opened its $360 million sugar mill last year in nearby Chheb district, has 107 contracts with area farmers and has now requested more land from the Ministry of Agriculture for its sugarcane cultivation, it is clear to villagers that it will not be leaving any time soon.
Regardless, it is evident the land dispute has changed local politics. Chea Khoeun, 40, was for years a staunch CPP supporter until the company confiscated 7 hectares of farmland in April 2016. Having supported the CPP for its pledged stability, his political beliefs were shaken all the more so when a local CPP activist accused him of supporting “the opposition” after complaining about his confiscated land.
The position of CPP members like Heng leaves him feeling perplexed and betrayed. “It’s important to protest to feed ourselves,” Khoeun said.
Describing his new political beliefs as “in the middle”, Khoeun was enthusiastic about Rany.
“She is brave, she is helpful, she knows how to stop machinery, she is very active in protesting the company and she knows how to speak.”