Access to Preak Smach village is monitored by the military. At a checkpoint on the road through Kiri Sakor district, armed officers interrogate those attempting to enter the area. After an hour of often hostile questioning last Friday, an investigator from rights group Adhoc was refused access.
Residents of a nearby village, however, pointed to a trail through the forest that was wide enough for a motorbike. It led to the coast and a boat to the village on Koh Sdech where families who say they have been living on the island since 1983 are facing eviction to make way for a tourism development that will cost, according to Chinese media reports, US$3.6 billion.
The tranquil scenery, expansive beaches and calm sea belied the anxiety that pervaded the village, as well as a rising defiance.
“If this had happened in the past, I would join the Khmer Rouge to protect my land,” said Sim Navy, adding that she was furious with the government for granting the land she lives on to a Chinese company.
Today, villagers will stage a protest on roads No. 48 and No. 4 in Kiri Sakor district. Some said they would sleep on the roads until the conflict with the Chinese developer was resolved. The concession to Union Development Group granted it 36,000 hectares in the province to develop an international tourist park. Environment Minister Mok Mareth, Minister of Finance Keat Chhon and company representative Xlizhi Xuan signed the 99-year lease in 2008.
Some families who had been relocated were still waiting for compensation, residents still in the village said.
Chean Kreab, 46, said this was one reason the remaining families were refusing to budge. Those who had left had been promised two hectares of land, but they had received plots measuring just 40 by 50 metres, she said.
“If they provide us with farmland and land titles, we will accept the offer, because we do not want to be evicted again,” Chean Kreab said.
The need for land titles was echoed by residents of Preak Smach village, on the coast.
San Theary, 24, said she was born in the village and would not move until she received new farmland and a title that would ensure no one could take it from her. “We will face eviction again if we agree to move and the company does not provide land titles.”
The relocation site had no school, health centre, wells or pagoda, San Theary said.
“How can we survive there? We will have no work or farmland. Where will we go if we get sick? We want the government to remove our village from the concession area given to the company,” she said.
Prak Thon, 68, said Environment Minister Mok Mareth had visited the area in December, 2008 and promised about 1,000 families they would each receive a house and two hectares of farmland if they relocated. “He does not even respect his own words,” Prak Thon said.
Some residents did not leave their homes because they feared they would be demolished while they are farming, he said. “We are very afraid that if we refuse to relocate, the company will use violence to force us, because they have hired military police to protect them,” Prak Thon said.
Primary-school students in the village say they will drop out of school if they are forced to move. Pen Sothy, 13, said the school at the relocation site had no toilets and was far from the huts. “There is nothing wrong with the school we have now. Why do they want to tear it down?” he asked.
“If they do not allow us to study here, I will quit school and start fishing like my father.”
Teacher Sorn Sovannara said teachers had been shifted to the new school so parents who wanted their children to be educated would have to relocate.
Like other residents, Sorn Sovannara compared the looming eviction to the Khmer Rouge emptying of cities.
“Pol Pot relocated people from the town to provinces, and now they are relocating villagers to make way for a Chinese company,” he said.
Even the pagoda faced destruction, Venerable You Samit said. It would be torn down and a new one built, he said. “I am a monk, so I will not leave my pagoda,” he added.
Those who have moved to the relocation site, Kon Kok, in Koh Sdach commune, said their standard of living had fallen. “Before, I could go to the forest and cut bamboo, and my husband could fish. Now, I have nothing,” said Kim San, 56.
“Where is the two hectares for each family?” she asked, adding that those who had moved had yet to receive land titles.
Son Bora, 56, said he felt “hopeless”. “I got nothing, and I cannot even visit my old neighbours because the military police will not let us into their village,” he said.
“I don’t know who to ask in the government for the farmland I was promised. If I had known I wouldn’t get any, I wouldn’t have moved.”
The road into Peam Kay village is also blocked by military police. Only Union Development Group staff were allowed inside, residents said. Some pol-ice demand bribes for villagers who want to leave temporarily, said 52-year-old Prak Thok.
“Some are very cruel. Others are more kind, but they keep a record of the time we leave and the time we return. Our land no longer belongs to us,” he said.
Villager Tit Vong said residents were treated like prisoners. “I don’t want to live like this. It is too cruel here.”
Nget Sokly, a military police officer guarding the village, said permission to enter or leave it had to be received from Major General Ing Lai.
“Nobody can go inside this village without permission from my boss. This land belongs to the company.”
Koh Kong governor Bun Leu said he had no right to allow anyone to go inside the villages because the land belonged to the Chinese company. Kirisakor district governor Chheng Chhi said the same.
Yi Soksan, deputy of Adhoc’s land program, said 1,143 families had been affected by the concession, and their living standards were plunging.
The promises of new land and titles were just a ploy, he said, adding that those still inside the concession area lived in fear. “They have lost their freedom.”
Staff at the Union Development Group did not respond to requests for comment.