Poeun Cheun woke before sunrise on December 12 – a Monday – and after preparing a quick breakfast, she headed to her rice field a couple of kilometres away.
The 45-year-old widowed mother of four had been gone from the Tbeng Meanchey district farm for fewer than 24 hours, but now found herself staring at a plot of land she didn’t recognise, the vast majority cleared and ploughed by strangers in the middle of the night.
“They tried taking my land in 2015, but I stopped them. In early 2016, they tried again, but last month, they succeeded,” she told reporters earlier this week, her voice rising in anger.
Cheun is a Kuoy ethnic villager from Brame commune, one of hundreds of locals who have woken up to the same sight or actually witnessed what they claim are their traditional lands cleared by the Chinese-owned Rui Feng Sugar Co.
Rui Feng, along with four subsidiaries, was granted close to 40,000 hectares of land in 2010, and are sinking about $360 million into their operations billed as one of Southeast Asia’s largest sugar production facilities.
In 2012, the firm, acting with the blessing of local authorities, began clearing vast tracts of land across Tbeng Meanchey and neighbouring districts for their sugarcane plantation, drawing immediate, if seemingly futile, opposition from local villagers like Cheun.
Cheun is one of about 40 villagers who left their homes on January 1 and began camping near their farmland – a renewed, and so far ineffective, bid to prevent the Rui Feng tractors from clearing it.
While the temporary camp they have constructed is haphazard – little more than a rickety wooden shed and a large table for communal meals – the villagers’ patrols are conducted with precision.
Every day, about 10 villagers climb onto a tractor-pulled wooden cart to patrol the vast sprawl of the economic land concession. The patrols, which take place twice a day on varied routes, are occasionally rerouted when a tipoff from villagers sends them hurrying towards a potential confrontation.
On Monday afternoon, about 30 villagers set off in the direction of a community members’ farm where they planned to thwart a company attempt to plough.
The two tractor trailers carrying them bounced and creaked as they made their way along narrow dirt roads flanked by 2-metre-high sugarcane stalks.
After turning onto a sturdier gravel road, the villagers spotted a tractor moving in the opposite direction. It was headed for a strip of land right under their noses, only a few hundred metres from camp.
The drivers immediately turned the two trailers filled with protesters and began a low-speed chase. On reaching the clearing, three tractors were already at work ploughing the land, while a nearby excavator was clearing shrubs.
Villagers jumped out of the trailers and advanced towards two Chinese supervisors and then things unfolded in what community representative Tep Tim told reporters has become predictable fashion.
The Chinese supervisor, who did not respond to attempts to ask questions, called in the protests on a walkie-talkie and asked the tractor drivers to temporarily stop clearing.
“We dare not go against ethnic villagers,” said one of the drivers, his face covered with a scarf and dark sunglasses. “I understand them because we are the same blood, but we work only on the order of the company.”
Attempts to negotiate with the firm’s staff quickly proved futile – most are Chinese and do not speak Khmer.
For the next hour or so, aside from raised voices and a few wild gesticulations as both sides demanded the other leave, little happened.
“The district authorities will come and two things can happen they will ask both sides to leave or they will ask the company to continue,” Tim said.
As if on cue, an hour after the standoff began, Uk Phalla, a district agriculture department official, arrived on the scene with two armed military personnel and proceeded to ask both sides to leave immediately.
The tractors rolled away, while villagers waited to make sure they won’t return.
“This will happen again tomorrow,” Tim said, her voice a mixture of resignation and hopelessness. Around the corner and away from the villagers, Phalla tells reporters he is tired of having to break up these standoffs, saying it has almost become a full-time job.
“The villagers stop the machinery. We tell the company to go away to avoid a standoff or violence. Then we coordinate with the villagers to calm them,” he said. “This has become our daily work.”
Villagers at Tbeng Meanchey say they will continue to protest the clearing for as long as it takes. But, three weeks in they are unable to hide the air of despair that has settled on the camp.
In two other districts in Preah Vihear – Chheb and Chey Sen – similar scenes have unfolded, with similarly disappointing results.
Attempting to cover a broader area with a more decentralised approach has been a conscious change of strategy, according to Tim, the community representative.
In previous efforts over the past four years, villagers from all the affected districts would congregate at one location to protest the clearings. The company’s widening of operations across the three districts has demanded the new approach.
“The activity of the company has spread out. So we have to also,” Tim said.
However, keeping up with the vast resources of Rui Feng is not easy. When villagers stop tractors at one location, the behemoths simply move to another and continue the clearing.
Villagers say they want to keep their protests peaceful, but violence nearly erupted in Chey Sen district earlier this month. Video of the incident that surfaced online shows company employees advancing toward villagers with wooden clubs.
While local authorities managed to calm the situation, the display had its intended effect, with protesters in the district taking a break from the campaign and returning to their villages.
While Tim has no kind words for the Chinese firm that is “taking their land from them”, most of her ire is directed at local authorities – specifically those in Tbeng Meanchey.
Ang Cheatlom, executive directive of local NGO Ponlok Khmer, said authorities have long ignored the concerns of ethnic villagers, even if they have documents from commune officials showing they use the land for agriculture. None possess the land titles that would satisfy higher authorities.
While admitting the newest campaign has yet to show any results, Cheatlom insists it will take a long and sustained effort to reap any benefits.
“I believe that the villagers can get some success, if not 100 percent, if they keep protesting for a long time, like up to one year,” he said.
But there is so far little give on the central assertion of both company officials and local authorities – that the villagers are farming on what is state land.
“The company only comes to invest, not to cause a dispute,” Kor Yang, a representative from Rui Feng told Post reporters this week.
It was a simple case, he explained. Authorities had already dealt properly with those possessing land titles, while those still protesting have no legitimate claim.
“This problem happens every day and is caused by the ones who have no documents,” he said.
District Governor Ung Vuthy echoed Yang almost word for word.
“What other basic proof can we ask of villagers to solve their problem?” he asked, referring to villagers’ lack of acceptable land documents.
He maintained that authorities would continue to engage with the villagers and that Provincial Governor Un Chanda planned to meet them later this month – but only to reiterate the province’s position.
A life altered
What saddens Tbeng Meanchey widow Cheun more than the loss of her land, she says, is what appears to be an end to her community’s way of life.
Before the clearing began, the ethnic minority population relied heavily on the forest rich in resin trees, wildlife and vegetation – not only for their livelihood but daily sustenance.
In a last-ditch bid to protect their way of life, the group applied to district authorities for a community land title in 2015 to protect nearly 2,200 hectares of forested area they used.
Three neighbouring communes followed suit.
The community is still awaiting a decision on the land title, but that has not deterred the firm or officials from green-lighting the continued clearing of the land.
“They did not recognise the communal land map and asked the commune to make it again,” Ponlok Khmer’s Cheatlom said. “But, the authorities do not pay attention to communal land, because they don’t get benefits like when they help the company.”
If Cheun expected her December encounter with the company to be her last, she was wrong. Over the past four weeks, Rui Feng has attempted to use planting machines to plant sugarcane seedlings on her land.
Last Saturday, she planned to confront them the same way she had on multiple previous occasions, by standing in front of the tractors and asking the drivers to stop.
But this time, her friend Sing Set, a fellow community member and farmer, jumped between her and the tractors, daring the drivers to run her over.
“I had to actually pull her away after she sat down in front of the machinery,” Cheun said when reporters spoke to her days later.
For Set though, her actions are the only possible recourse.
“Yes, I would have died. That is the only way people will know about the suffering of ethnic people here,” she said.