Kampong Chhnang provincial authorities announced they have allowed 750 ethnic Vietnamese families living on the Tonle Sap river to stay until July, after more than 3,000 other Vietnamese families voluntarily relocated to designated areas on higher ground.
Provincial governor Chhour Chandoeun said authorities made the decision after carefully considering the impact of relocation on the families’ livelihoods.
“We constantly think about the people’s livelihood. In this case, they have been doing cage fish farming, so if we move the cages onto land, the fish will die. So we let them keep their homes and cage fish farm temporarily,” he said.
Chandoeun added that authorities are preparing for their mandatory relocation within the next six months.
“They need to settle on land. They can keep their cage fish farm but can’t live in the area permanently,” he said.
Provincial deputy governor Sun Sovannarith echoed Chandoeun’s statement, saying: “We want them to have enough time to prepare. We will relocate them, but not their fish cages. The remaining 750 families are living in six different locations [on the Tonle Sap]. In Kampong Chhnang town alone, there are 490 families,” he said.
Sovannarith said the relocation plan will be carried out in two phases.
“First, the authority is building suitable infrastructure for those who have already relocated and who do not own any caged fish farms. The remaining families who own caged fish farms will also have to move further inland in July, but the fish farms will be maintained,” he said.
In the second phase, Sovannarith said the authority is working in conjunction with private firms to standardise the fish farms before turning them into a tourist attraction.
“We want them to remain in this place so we can study the area and their fish farming, before turning it into a tourism community where we can generate revenues from ticket sales to tourists,” he said.
Spokesman for rights group Adhoc Soeung Sen Karuna took issue with the authority’s seven-month timeline. He said those who have already relocated might protest the decision.
“For the families who agreed to relocate voluntarily, the authority needs to demonstrate why they had to move while better-off families who own fish farms remain."
“I’m worried that they may protest the unequal treatment. This is an issue that needs to be addressed. We want to see [the authority] enforce the law on an equal basis so the authority needs to explain to those who have relocated why they let better-off families stay,” he said.
Sovannarith said those who have been relocated – including ethnic Vietnamese and Muslims – are living on designated land where authorities are building infrastructure in conjunction with relevant NGOs in the country. The infrastructure projects include new roads, schools, health centres, clean water and electricity supplies.