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Lor Peang villagers protest
Lor Peang villagers protest Pha Lina

Children paying price in land rights fight

‘I do not want to be a monk,’ says boy forced to live in a pagoda after his single mother lost her land in dispute with company

Ches Chea is a reluctant monk. Two years ago, the sad-faced 12-year-old’s widowed single mother sent him to live at his village’s pagoda after she lost her farmland in a long-running dispute with a politically connected company.

“I do not want to be a monk,” Chea, the eldest of four siblings, said, “but my mother told me that if I do not live in the pagoda, I would have no place to stay, since our land was taken.”

Since 2001, about 52 families from Lor Peang village in Kampong Chhnang have been involved in the dispute with KDC International over about 145 hectares of farming land. KDC is owned by Chea Keng – the wife of the Minister of Industry, Mines and Energy Suy Sem.

The company denies that it has done anything wrong. Lawyer Phat Pov Seang said KDC bought the land in 2007.

“The company has ample documents, but [the villagers] do not,” he said.

Over the years, some villagers have accepted compensation payouts and moved on, but others continue to demonstrate regularly, facing violence and arrests. During a confrontation this month, Chea’s mother, Bin Oun, was knocked unconscious by police. As the dispute has dragged on, the families have sunken further and further into poverty.

The villagers march on Phnom Penh
The villagers march on Phnom Penh Heng Chivoan

Sitting under a mango tree at Lor Peang, Bin Oun said she had no choice but to send Chea to the pagoda, because she was a widow and could not afford to look after him.

“If I do not send him to become a monk, he will have nothing to eat,” she said.

“I hope that he will at least get an education, since I cannot look after him.”

Her eyes wet with tears, she lamented the circumstances that forced her to send her son away.

“Is there any justice in this world? Why do the poor people have to suffer this unfairness? We are only trying to protect our lands and our lives are left hanging between life and death,” she said.

“What future will our children have after our land is grabbed? They cannot go to school since their mothers needs to protest. They do not even have rice to eat. That’s why I sent my boy to become a monk,” she said.

“We protest hoping one day we will get back our land so we can grow rice again and support our families.

“In the meantime, we make handicrafts so that we might be able to buy one or two kilograms of rice.

“While our children are looking for earthworms [to sell to traders], other children get to go to school in their clean school uniforms.”

Ches Chea, 12, wishes he was old enough to join the protests
Ches Chea, 12, wishes he was old enough to join the protests Heng Chivoan

“We live in bitter times,” she added.

Another villager, Thorn Deurn, agreed that many families could not afford to send their children to school since their land had been taken away. The adults spent any time not taken up with activism making handicrafts to buy rice, while others left to work as construction workers in Thailand.

“We also think about our children’s educations, but their stomachs are more important right now. Should we send our children to school or should we send them to work?”

While most monks take on the robes because they want to obtain peace of mind through spirituality, Chea said that was a state he would never obtain while concerned about his mother’s safety.

“I cannot calm my mind since I worry about my mother and my small siblings,” he said. “If something happens to my mother, who will look after my siblings? My grandmother is very old already. I wish I was old enough to join the protests, but I am so small. What can I do?”

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