Life was quiet at first in the Kandal Stung village where Uong Sim and her husband settled more than 20 years ago.
They planted rice fields and built a small house. They had children and grandchildren. Money was tough, but they made do.
Then strangers began appearing in the village with stakes and bulldozers. A local oknha, or tycoon, said the land belonged to her. Villagers in three communes went to court, protested in front of Hun Sen’s house and clashed with Military Police. Hundreds of families were affected.
Still, Sim and her neighbours continued to do the same jobs they always did, living peacefully and growing rice.
Things went quiet, and no more men showed up.
But on January 12, everything changed.
That’s when the government announced the development of a $1.5 billion airport on 2,600 hectares in the district, releasing maps that appeared to show the facility and a massive multiuse development project on their land.
In the following days, SUVs began rolling down the bumpy roads, signs declaring land for sale sprouted up around the commune, and government-aligned media outlet Fresh News released documents from the ministry claiming that the land had belonged to the oknha all along.
The news shocked villagers, who had court verdicts in 2006 and 2007 go in their favour and were promised that land titles were coming.
“We do not know what to say,” said Sim, 54, sitting on a concrete bench outside the small and impoverished village abutting rice fields last week. “We don’t know why every authority agreed to do it and no one did it.”
The glitzy new airport and surrounding mixed-use development could revive one of the country’s fiercest land rights disputes – one that even the Supreme Court has said is marred by “irregularities”.
Nearly 300 families who say they have been living on the same land for more than two decades now find themselves again in the midst of conflict.
Even provincial authorities say they are uncertain who has the rights to the disputed land, which has long been claimed by Oknha Seang Chanheng but was recently purchased by well-connected development firm Overseas Cambodia Investment Corporation (OCIC), in partnership with the state aviation department.
“Now, whether it’s state land or not, they need to compensate us,” Sim said. “We’re not against the decision, but it has to be either money or land.”
Reached yesterday, Chanheng said she was too busy to respond while overseas in the United States. However, in past media interviews, she claimed that her company, Heng Development Co, bought the land in the mid-1990s, and that the villagers encroached on it after she built a road and a dam.
However, many of the locals – who still call the villages by their Pol Pot-era names of Point 92, Point 93 and Point 94 – say they settled the area in the 1980s and 90s, long before the company arrived.
“There were no land titles here, only an agreement with the village chief,” said Hun Heng, a villager in Point 92 who was stripping bark from logs as three boys played in the water beneath his stilted house. “I’ve lived here since 1990, since the road wasn’t even here . . . When I first moved here, my child was young, and now she has her own children.”
Villagers say it was 2005 when Chanheng’s men began bulldozing land to claim it, despite a 2001 land law that says people who live peacefully on any piece of uncontested land for five years can claim ownership.
In 2006 and 2007, the Kandal Provincial Court sided with the villagers in their claim to the land – a rare victory. Officials came to measure the villagers’ plots, and some families even received temporary land titles from the land management office.
But official titles were never issued, villagers said.
Then in 2009, the company began clearing land in the area. When villagers came to protest, company security guards and military officers opened fire, wounding three.
“It seemed that none of our complaints or petitions reached Prime Minister Hun Sen,” said 45-year-old villager Men Dy, who recalled that company bulldozers destroyed a beloved local temple that a villager had spent tens of thousands of dollars building. “We went to [Hun Sen’s] home, but we still could not reach him.”
The next year, 10 villagers were arrested while trying to block company bulldozers. Three others were arrested and charged with land grabbing and incitement a few months later in connection with the protests, a move widely decried by human rights groups as a form of harassment.
“Our rice was almost ripe,” said Sim’s husband, Pol Uon. “And then they destroyed it.”
Suddenly, in 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that the land in fact belonged to a company called Min You Cultural Foundation, represented, according to court documents, by Oknha Thai Seng Long and two Japanese businessmen. The company appears to be unregistered and no trace of it could be found in Ministry of Commerce records. A contact for Seng Long was unavailable.
The court also stated that “nasty” villagers were trying to steal the land, despite acknowledging “many irregularities” in the original sale of the land to Min You.
For villagers interviewed by The Post, the ruling was the first they had heard of the company or court case. They also said they were never called to testify, nor were they aware the hearing was taking place.
Local resident Nhor Nhaem, 51, who has carefully collected copies of documents at every step of the process, said the decision was shrouded in secrecy.
“We appealed,” Nhaem said. “We just heard now that people at the high level are working on it [the titles], but we don’t know the progress.”
Two years later, one of two people listed by the Supreme Court as an original owner of the land – a former Funcinpec senator named Pov Sith – was convicted in August 2016 of forging documents to sell 1,000 hectares in Kandal Stung district to a Japanese bank and sentenced to one year in prison.
Chanheng too had her own run-ins with the law involving shady land deals, and was convicted of faking land titles in order to sell 147 hectares in Kampong Chhnang to Chinese investors.
Human rights groups now argue that development on the land should not continue until the disputes are resolved and irregularities cleared up.
Am Sam Ath of Licadho, who advised villagers at the time of the 2009 shooting, said he suspects that the authorities failed to solve the problem “because of their own interests”.
“If they cannot solve for people who are impacted, the development will not be smooth and will have problems,” Sam Ath said. “And the villagers will face suffering, lawsuits, violence and imprisonment. A developing country needs development, but before doing so, they need to solve the impact.”
Vann Sophath, a business and human rights coordinator for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the government and developers should conduct an environmental and social impact assessment on the airport project.
“The plan should not be allowed to proceed until both parties to the conflict – the company and the affected population – reach a mutually acceptable solution,” he said. “Otherwise, the development will result in the same problems met in the Boeung Kak and Borei Keila cases.”
Even Provincial Governor Mao Phirun expressed confusion about who owns the land, adding that it was still uncultivated at the time villagers moved there in the 1990s.
“In the past, our [officials in] communes and villages were careless and gave confirmation of the lands without verifying whether this land had a title or not,” Phirun said. “Therefore, it caused problems.”
Shan Hong, an assistant to OCIC Chairman Pung Khieu Se, said the group legally purchased the land at the end of last year from multiple owners, one of which was Chanheng’s Heng Development.
However, she insisted that they had shown OCIC land titles signed “maybe a couple of years ago”.
“The land over there, they have many problems,” she acknowledged.
“From what I understand it was purchased a long time ago, but many people were farming, planting and said the land belongs to them. This kind of thing always happens in Cambodia.”
State Secretariat of Civil Aviation spokesman Sin Chanserey Vutha said his organisation was “not fully aware” that some of the land was in dispute when it agreed to a 10 percent stake in the project.
Chanserey Vutha predicted the developers would follow the “resettlement law”, possibly by buying out the villagers at the market rate.
“I don’t know the mechanism, but we don’t want to hurt people,” he said. “There is a win-win solution.”
That may be costly now, however. At the time of the dispute, a representative for Chanheng told reporters that she had purchased the land in the mid-1990s from villagers for $450 per hectare. Local residents and landowners told The Post last month they were asking $150,000 to $300,000 per hectare.
Ministry of Land Management spokesman Seng Lot could not be reached over the past two days.
However, Sim says she is well aware of how much value they are sitting on – and how much they stand to lose if they are to be evicted after more than a decade fighting myriad powerful interests. “Even though there is this,” Sim said, “we are still fighting.”
Site home to other ongoing land disputes
Villagers aren’t the only ones engaged in land disputes in Kandal Stung district, where a $1.5 billion new airport is planned. Several other high-ranking or powerful officials happen to own land in Kandork commune, which overlaps with the topmost portion of the proposed airport development site.
Minister of Tourism Thong Khon, three-star General Duong Heng, Deputy Phnom Penh Governor Koet Chhe and Chhroy Changvar District Governor Khlaing Huot – who is also an adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen – all own between 2 and 28 hectares in the commune near Svay Prey village, according to a letter sent to the district government in 2016 complaining that an unnamed company was encroaching on their land.
Pin Vannak, the lawyer for the group, confirmed the landowners were fighting with a “Chinese company” over land boundaries but had “finished solving the problem last year”.
Villagers, however, say the spats have continued up to now, with many of them hired to guard plots of land belonging to the various officials.
One woman who declined to give her name claimed she climbed onto a bulldozer to stop men representing Duong Heng from digging onto her employer’s land. Like many others who live in the area, she is concerned that she may be evicted from her home by high-powered companies now descending on the commune. “We have been here 20 years, so we will not move,” she said. “If they don’t compensate us, we won’t go.”
Locals also say that powerful four-star General Kun Kim owns land in the commune, abutting in parts that of Oknha Seang Chanheng. The two are related by marriage – Kim’s son married Chanheng’s daughter in 2010. “Heng Development and Kun Kim are on one side,” said villager Hun Heng. “And [the other oknhas] are on the other side.”
Duong Heng, Khon and Huot could not be reached yesterday. However, a village record book confirms that Duong Heng purchased 77 hectares in the area in July 2015. And Chhe, when reached by a reporter yesterday, first asked if the reporter wanted to buy land, then claimed it had all been sold. He declined to comment further, calling the matter “private”.
A company called Eco Megapolis Development Corporation – with connections to Oknha Khun Sea – has also allegedly been measuring land in the area, according to villager Nhor Nhaem, who said the company was accompanied by local authorities in November.
Eco Megapolis is registered to Sea, who is also the owner of Khun Sea Import Export, and several people also on the board of OCIC. According to the Cambodia Daily, Sea received 20 hectares of land in the area more than four years ago in a land swap with the government.