Sarorn Phi, 39, cautiously stops his moto 20 metres away from the large, signless boom gate blocking his path in Sesan district. He shuffles toward the security guard’s hut at the entrance to a sprawling Chinese rubber plantation and negotiates with the guard to enter the concession.
For Phi, and the 18 other families that live in Sre Chhouk village, Kbal Romeas commune, bargaining with security personnel has become part and parcel of life in a village literally marooned by two land concessions.
“We used to be able to come and go, but two years ago, they made a Chinese concession on this side,” Phi says, sitting under a gnarled tree near his lean-to hut. “And a Vietnamese concession on that side. We cannot go anywhere without permission.”
A village elder, Khuon Chorn, 67, said the mixed-minority ethnicity villagers had been living in the surrounding jungle ancestrally but seemed to have been completely overlooked when concessions, completely fencing them in, were granted.
“We are very isolated, it seems like we are living on an island because the companies’ land is all around us,” Chorn said.
When the true scale of the village’s predicament became apparent, as large-scale clearing and security personnel moved into the concessions earlier this year, the families packed up their humble belongings and moved to National Road 78A to live in temporary shacks alongside 114 other families who had been evicted by Vietnamese company Pacific Co, Ltd.
However, the families were shortly evicted from the national road, which runs adjacent to the Chinese company’s plantation. None of the villagers with whom the Post spoke could identify the company by name, and when Post reporters asked the name of a uniformed guard, he refused to speak, retreating to his guard shack.
“That private company and authorities made us leave and warned they would imprison us if we refused to move out,” Chorn recounted, his tiny frame leaning against the tree. “They tore down our homes with chainsaws.”
So, he said, the 19 families returned to their “island” village to resume a life with no access to schools, healthcare, electricity or sanitation – hardships exacerbated by a new lack of access to food and the outside world.
As curious children peaked out from the stilts of the village’s shacks, Phi shook his head in despair.
“There is no forest, no animals and no food for us as a minority now,” he said. “We used to hunt the wild animals for our food, but now it is very hard to hunt, and we are lacking food and sometimes just eat rice with salt,” he said.
Dressed only in a red krama, Thai Laing, 38, said that he had tried to adapt to the new living situation and secure a job with Pacific’s plantation.
“I went to work for the company for two months, but stopped because they did not pay any of my salary,” he said, adding that the large majority of employees were Vietnamese.
“Now I have no land, where else can I work? Because I do not have access to any of the companies’ land or the roads,” he said.
His wife, Thai Toeng, 37, in a nearby hut was carrying for Phi’s younger sister, who, over the past two months, had reduced to skeletal form and had to be held up and supported to breathe.
“She got sick, but the provincial hospital just sent her back here,” Toeng said, shooing away the emaciated 23-year-old’s two young children.
“Our children will be illiterate like us. I am so concerned about malaria in this rainy season – our children are so vulnerable.”