More than 200 angry ethnic Kuoy villagers who claim their land has been stolen by a Chinese-owned sugar company were blocked from protesting as Prime Minister Hun Sen inaugurated the firm’s mill in Preah Vihear province yesterday.
The $360 million facility is the biggest sugar plant in Cambodia and one of the largest in Asia, according to its owner, Rui Feng (Cambodia) International. The prime minister hailed the plant – which can produce over 2,000 tonnes of sugar per day – as a sign of Cambodia’s political and economic strength.
“This huge investment clearly shows that investors have firm confidence in the Cambodian People’s Party-led government,” Hun Sen told the 20,000 assembled officials and residents. “This also reflects excellent relations and mutual trust between China and Cambodia.”
The mill will process sugarcane grown on 40,000 hectares of land granted as economic land concessions to Rui Feng and four sister companies.
However, groups of villagers claim the land is theirs and have been involved in a protracted dispute with Rui Feng since 2012.
In the latest action, the villagers from Tbeng Meanchey district prepared 400 thumbprints on a petition to cancel the concession, which they wanted to hand to Hun Sen, but were blocked by police en route.
“We marched in order to meet the prime minister so that we can seek solutions for the land dispute, but police did not allow us until Samdech left,” said community member Khum Rany.
The demonstrators instead shouted their demands from the sides of the road leading to the mill.
Provincial police chief Sy Kiri and District Governor Soksan Dara claimed not to know about the interception. Kiri said that thousands of people were allowed to attend the inauguration and greet the premier.
Addressing attendees yesterday, Hun Sen hailed the project as a major job creator, but cautioned that Rui Feng would need to provide suitable compensation and facilities to attract workers who might otherwise migrate to Thailand illegally in search of opportunities.
The premier warned the company that if it “want[s] workers to work here, you need to build houses for them, provide a proper salary and . . . build a school and hospital.”
He also discouraged Rui Feng from expanding onto new land, and admonished them to “have good relations with farmers”.
“The land is still their land. They will supply sugar to your company so that the factory will be sustainable,” he added.
Company reps could not be reached for comment on past disputes or relations with locals.
Additional reporting by Vong Sokheng and Sor Chandara