Pisey* was shocked to learn her beloved fiance had been imprisoned for raping her.
The 16-year-old high school dropout met her partner, Yan Mao – who at 31 years old is nearly twice her age – when he started working for her parents as a farmhand more than two years ago.
“We just exchanged a few words the first time we met. I only started feeling interested in him after he was here for a few months,” she said from the floor of her family’s tiny stilt house, which is buried in forestland in Mondulkiri’s remote Sre Chhouk commune.
Pisey, whose youthful face and slight frame make her appear even younger than her years, said she “fell in love with Mao in the planting season”.
It was then that “he told me he loved me, but I never confessed that I loved him until later on”, she added, giggling nervously.
Among the ethnic Phnong – a minority group that populates swathes of Mondulkiri – age-gap romances are a cultural norm.
Sourn Butmao, executive director of the NGO Minority Rights Organisation, which works with indigenous communities across Cambodia, said it is common among many of the country’s hill tribes, particularly the Phnong, to get engaged as young as 14 years old, often to someone much older.
“It is up to their agreement with each other,” he said.
In Sre Chhouk, the couple’s families and friends encouraged the blossoming relationship.
“He visited her many times and they fell in love with each other,” said Pisey’s mother, Brorb Sokha.
When the plants came to be harvested, Mao’s parents arrived with rice, white wine and 10,000 riel (about $2.50) – gifts symbolising the beginning of the couple’s engagement.
Both sets of parents thumb-printed a contract formalising their betrothal.
“By tradition, this means that they booked her as their future daughter-in-law,” Sokha said, waving around the document. “We needed to wait until she reached childbearing age – 16 years old – to have the wedding.”
The contract states that the couple would be wed this year.
But their blissful engagement came to a sudden end when Mao was arrested in April for Pisey’s rape.
“When I was told he’d been arrested, I was so shocked,” Pisey said. “I wanted to help him, but I couldn’t.”
She and her family claim Mao only began staying at their house occasionally when she was 15 years old – the legal age of consent in Cambodia – but declined to comment on whether she was in a sexual relationship with her fiance.
No one is sure who filed the complaint against him.
Mondulkiri Provincial Court president Yar Narin said Mao’s arrest stemmed from claims that Pisey had been “under 14” when the pair began having sex.
“It doesn’t matter if the girl agrees or not, or if they get married or not.… Any suspect who has sexual intercourse with an underage girl must be arrested and brought to justice,” he said.
But there is a more popular theory as to why Mao was locked up.
“It’s not about rape, it’s about a land dispute,” Pisey said resolutely.
According to rights groups and residents of Sre Chhouk, a years-long feud with Vietnamese rubber company Binh Phuoc 1 is at the centre of the allegation.
The company and community have been at odds since 2011, when Binh Phuoc signed a large concession agreement in the area, the terms of which locals claim have repeatedly been violated.
As a prominent community leader at the forefront of fights against the allegedly expanding concession, numerous people told the Post that Mao had been set up.
“Mao’s case is happening because of the land dispute,” said Sok Rattha, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc.
“There is no proof that he committed the crime. Parents from both sides acknowledge publicly that they agreed for the son and daughter to live as husband and wife.… It is an ethnic tradition, not a crime.”
The Phnong villagers’ homes are now accessible by a road that passes through multiple company checkpoints, and winds past plantations where vast acres of forest have been felled to make way for rubber.
While driving to the remote commune in late July, a village guide stopped his motorbike and pointed at the expanse of land around him. There, clothing, tin cans and pieces of wood could be seen half buried in the earth.
Structures and a shrine erected on “ancient ground” there that holds great spiritual importance for the Phnong were burned down in April by authorities, who accused the villagers of squatting on the concession.
The remains, the guide said, symbolised how brutal the dispute has become.
Mao was arrested following the attack on the ancient site, when he attempted to erect a new shrine in the ashes, according to reports from numerous locals.
Gathered outside an activist’s house later that day, dozens of men, women and children shouted over one another their complaints against Binh Phuoc, which they say has encroached on hundreds of hectares of land they have farmed on for generations.
“Our community forest has been cleared by the company for rubber,” an elderly woman yelled. “The company is clearing everything,” a neighbour called out in agreement.
The Phnong – who traditionally live off of the land, planting vegetables and fruits, and hunting animals – say their very way of life is being destroyed by the rubber firm.
They produced folders of notes documenting years of complaints against the company and letters from upper-level government bodies asking local authorities to resolve the dispute.
“We are being pressured, threatened and discriminated against,” said 37-year-old Brorb Chib. “The loss of the land is the biggest loss possible for our ethnic community, because the area they’re grabbing from us is an area that our lives depend on.”
The devastation villagers’ spoke of is not hard to see. Just minutes from their houses, huge plots of land once alive with trees and wildlife have been gutted.
Many of the locals said they were under strict orders from officials not to talk about the dispute.
“But if we don’t speak out, more land will disappear,” Chib said.
Following the interviews, Post reporters were ushered by police into a nearby station and asked about what the community had revealed.
Rattha, of Adhoc, said Bin Phuoc had colluded with local officials to break its concession boundaries.
The company “does not respect or pay attention to the local villagers”, he said. “They do not care, because they have money and protection from the district authority”.
Some of the Phnong activists claim that the company and authorities are deliberately targeting them because of their ethnic minority status.
“The authorities do not regard us as their people, they consider us the enemy,” Chib explained.
A 2013 report by UK-based investigative group Global Witness noted that “indigenous ethnic minorities have disproportionately born the brunt” of the devastating human and environmental impacts of Vietnam’s rush for rubber.
The study highlights the way in which Vietnam Rubber Group (VRG), Binh Phuoc’s parent company, has systematically violated laws and people’s rights to meet soaring international demand.
Through its subsidiaries, the report says, VRG has managed to exceed Cambodia’s legal threshold on concession holdings by 16 times.
Authorities, however, maintain that the company is the rightful owner of the land, which the “newly arrived” Phnong villagers are illegally using.
Koy Chamroeun, chief of Sre Chouk commune police, said only that the “case is closed”.
Narin of the provincial court, meanwhile, dismissed claims of foul play in Mao’s arrest, arguing that it had nothing to do with his activism. “Rape is one case and the land dispute is another one. It is separate.”
Multiple attempts to reach the company for this story were unsuccessful.
Despite the allegations still standing, Mao was released on bail about a week ago.
Community members say he and Pisey have now been reunited for the time-being, and he has moved back into the family home, while remaining under the watch of local authorities.
Pisey – who has limited phone signal at the remote family home – could not be reached this week.
But she said in late July that wedding preparations would resume when he was released from prison.
“I still love him and want to marry him. I will wait even if he is jailed for 10 or 20 years.”
*Name changed to protect the source’s identity.