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‘Our pain is like an ocean’

Villagers who refused to relocate for the controversial Sesan II Dam in Stung Treng have seen their homes, schools, pagodas and harvest land flooded. But while they rue their losses, some see a fragile victory

By Phak Seangly and Andrew Nachemson in Stung Treng province
Pictures by Jade Sacker
Friday 16 February 2018

‘Our entire village inundated, but no one leaves there. We were born here, so we agree to die here,” sang Set Nhal, an elderly resident of Kbal Romeas, on the opening evening of the village’s rice festival earlier this week.

Huge urns filled with rice wine flanked a wooden platform built beneath a roof of straw and flowers. Villagers mingled merrily, with some sucking on thick bamboo straws protruding from the urns.

One urn, green with ornate carvings, remained untouched. It has been passed down through the generations by ancestors who take on the roles of gods in the ethnic Phnong culture.

A circle formed around the centre of a stage, surrounding six men beating similarly ancient metal drums. As the men played, the women danced around them.

Traditional drummers go from house to house playing songs for every villager during the rice festival. Jade Sacker

Kbal Romeas and nearby Srekor were flooded late last year after the Lower Sesan II Dam officially came online, marking the climax of a years-long conflict between the government and ethnic minority villagers.

For some three years, members of the communities were cajoled into leaving their homes to make way for the newest mega dam on a Mekong River tributary.

Health centres were closed, state teachers were fired and monks were ordered to relocate. Holdouts were promised new land at resettlement sites from the state and monetary compensation from the Hydro Power Lower Sesan 2 Co Ltd, a joint venture primarily owned by powerful businessman Kith Meng’s Royal Group and Chinese state-owned Hydrolancang International Energy Co Ltd.

Still, 258 ethnic Phnong villagers have refused to leave – and instead have resettled on farmland and hills on the outskirts of the village.

On this land, orange flowers dangled from a thatched roof above the stage, brushing the heads of dancers and drummers.

Known as flame-of-the-forest in English, the flower blooms once a year at the end of the harvest season. If it is plentiful, it is seen as a good omen for the year ahead.

This season saw an especially good bloom.

Cows graze freely in the unflooded part of Srekor. Jade Sacker

Optimism was tangible among the villagers, who felt at least semi-victorious in their struggle to remain on their land. Deputy Provincial Governor Duong Pov visited just a few days before the festival this week, promising the holdouts they would be allowed to remain at their rice fields permanently.

While authorities had warned that all would be lost to the reservoir, villagers were pleasantly surprised when much of the outskirts of the village, including farmland, remained dry. Most families had already set up temporary shelters at their farms, and are now in the process of reinforcing them into more permanent homes.

After initially saying that state services would only be provided at official resettlement sites, Pov told villagers this week that public facilities would be built for the residents.

“The land will be granted to all villagers, ensuring that all families possess land to live and farm, community forests and ancestral land. The land belongs to you, not to others,” Pov pledged in a video of the visit obtained by The Post.

But when the villagers demanded that he sign a contract committing to the pledge, he danced around their request.

“I guarantee. I said I will give and I will give, including the land, without conditions,” he said, adding that he will send a team to measure and map out the area for the community.

At this week’s rice festival, when the music stopped, and the men and women were sitting on the floor, Nhal began to sing.

The villagers gave him their respect and attention, but not hushed reverence, shouting their own additions and support for his lyrical telling of their history.

Bowls of tricoloured sticky rice circulated, with villagers grabbing handfuls to go with the ever-present rice wine.

“Here is my native place, my land and my natural forest, so I need to live here. I do not agree to leave whatsoever,” Nhal explained after his song was over.

Villagers beat drums during rice festival celebrations (Left); A woman smokes a cigarette as drummers prepare under a flame-of-the-forest flower (Right). Jade Sacker

A few hundred metres from the edge of the hills, floodwaters seeped into the old road as buffalo grazed along the newly created shore.

Brorch Rithy slid a longboat into the water, guiding it through half-submerged trees that were vibrant and green, in stark contrast with the brittle dusty hills.

The overfed trees gave way to a vast expanse of open water.

Here, the abandoned school sits, next to a rusting playground and a bare flagpole jutting into open air. The tops of desks barely peek out above the water, while the chalkboard still bears marks of the last lessons.

A few minutes ride past the school, the canopy of trees return, casting the old village centre in cool shadows.

Water has not reached the inside of most of the stilted homes, spray painted with defiant phrases in Khmer like “I do not leave my native place”.

Rithy’s home bears the most common epitaph: “NO LS2 DAM”.

Rithy guides his boat to his flooded home in Kbal Romeas, which is stamped with anti-dam declarations. Jade Sacker

The house is mostly intact, complete with mattresses and mosquito nets for nights when the family decides to return and sleep in a familiar setting. Intimate possessions, like family photographs and the ancestral urn, remain as spider webs and dust encroach.

Inside the nearby pagoda, religious artefacts remain untouched. The Phnong people in Kbal Romeas practice a mixture of animist customs and Theravada Buddhism.

There are plans to build a new pagoda in the hills, but for now, four large Buddha statues look out on open water.

One of the most common reasons given for the refusal to relocate is a fear of abandoning the village’s burial ground. The resettlement sites are located at least one hour’s drive by car, with a public van requiring more than double that time.

“We do not want to go away from our ancestors’ graveyards. We would lose all of our traditions,” Rithy maintained.

When the floods came, the villagers decided not to remove the urns carrying their ancestors’ ashes. Rithy explained that they were “offerings” to the gods, and could not simply be taken back.

“We agreed to die here with our ancestors and the forest,” he said.

Brorch Rithy stands on the balcony of the old pagoda, explaining that villagers refused to remove religious artifacts until a new pagoda is built. Jade Sacker

Back on dry land, Nhal Seiya’s house is the closest to the floodwaters, and is only about one kilometre from her original home.

She sat with her children in the shade of a few struggling trees while her husband napped in a nearby hammock.

“Living here is different from the old home. Our old home was more comfortable with many trees and shade,” said Seiya, who hoped newly planted trees would one day grow to the same height.

Seiya and her family refused to relocate because they believed there would not be enough space at the relocation site to raise livestock.

“When pigs or chicken enter the land of other people, they are killed,” she said.

Here, Seiya has seven hectares, and the neighbouring land belongs to friends and family.

Seiya’s four siblings agreed to accept compensation and relocate, and while today most holdouts say there are no ill feelings, conflict was rife when the schism first opened.

The children know nothing so I teach them voluntarily. Without a school, I worry that our ethnic children will not be educated enough

Thun Sarin is one of those residents who took compensation from the company and a home from the state. Returning to the village for the ceremony, he stood to the side as villagers gathered again at the wooden stage.

“We experience many difficulties living at the new site ... Indigenous people live by feeding animals in a large forest, but at the relocation site it is difficult because the land and space is smaller,” Sarin said.

He acknowledged that farm animals that wander out of the contained village onto strangers’ properties are sometimes killed, and the farmland is not as fertile.

Sarin said that when families grow, and when new ones form, there is nowhere to expand. While the recent migrants were promised five hectares, subsequent newlyweds are only offered two.

“The land is privately owned already,” he said, in contrast with the communal living situation of Kbal Romeas.

Despite his seeming hesitation to join the celebrations, Sarin claimed villagers treat him normally now, but that wasn’t always the case.

“When former villagers [who resettled] used to visit the old village, sometimes they accused us of being a spy,” he said.

Reun Sopheap, 20, was a public school teacher in Kbal Romeas until she was fired by the state, allegedly for refusing to relocate.

Now she continues to teach without a salary, living only off of donations.

“The children know nothing so I teach them voluntarily. I want them to be educated,” Sopheap said.

She is sceptical of promises that a new public school will be built in the new makeshift village.

“Without a school, I worry that our ethnic children will not be educated enough,” Sopheap said, adding that it is important to her for them to learn the indigenous language and customs.

Scrawled lessons remain on the Kbal Romeas school blackboard as the desks sit in floodwater. Jade Sacker

In nearby Srekor village, home to an ethnic Lao community that is now submerged, Fut Khoeun holds back tears while looking at the zinc roof of his home, the only piece still visible above 10 metres of water.

“What happened here is huge, not small. Our pain is like an ocean,” Khoeun said.

A blacksmith, Khoeun built his own home in 2007. He estimates that he lost $6,000 in the flood, between his house, wood, tractor parts and blacksmith tools. He still visits his home a few times a week.

“We will not lose what we have. It is the legacy from our ancestors, who do not want us to relocate either,” he explained.

Villager Fut Khoeun sits next to his home, which has been almost entirely submerged by floodwater. Phak Seangly

He said that for years the government attempted to “lure” him away, but since the flood, authorities stopped visiting the 75 holdout families who are also living on surrounding farmland.

Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, an environmental activist who co-founded the NGO Mother Nature and was deported on orders of Prime Minister Hun Sen in 2015, said the remaining land is still being sought by companies.

“I’m 100 percent sure that some of that land has already been promised verbally, or even officially, to companies,” he said.

In an interview yesterday, Deputy Governor Pov said the land granted to Kbal Romeas holdouts will be carved out of an economic land concession belonging to Siv Guek Investment.

He said each family will get 1,000 square metres to live on and five hectares for rice fields, while the rest would be a community forest owned by the state.

“The land belongs to the state and will be granted to villagers, not for the company,” Pov said.

Out of 7,000 hectares, 900 would go to the villagers.

Gonzalez-Davidson said Mother Nature activists still secretly visit Srekor and Kbal Romeas regularly, helping to lobby the government for public services and formal land titles.

Gonzalez welcomed the optimism of some villagers, but said it must be taken with a “pinch of salt”, and the strategy must evolve to combat continued attempts to erode the cultural identity of the community.

“Our long-term project is anything from 10 to 20 years down the line, when the dictatorship is over, to appeal to open up the floodgates and allow people to return,” he said.

A young Phnong girl rides a motorbike in front of a row of identical homes in the government sanctioned Kbal Romeas relocation site. Jade Sacker

Even a decade, however, might be too long to preserve a traditional way of life.

In the new state-built Kbal Romeas settlement, rows of identical lacquered brown houses with blue roofs are built on arid land adjacent to bustling National Road 72.

While many villagers interviewed repeated the complaints aired by Surin, some were embracing the new way of life.

“I decided to relocate to pave the way for development … Here it is easy because we have everything. In the old place, all I could see when I opened my eyes was the forest,” said Nhan Sreynit.

Sreynit praised the new location for its state services and proximity to modern life.

When she returned to the old village last month, she said it had become unfamiliar.

“I could not recognise exactly where my home was. I see only flood,” she said.