Hundreds of Cambodian families on Thursday refused compensation for their land from a Chinese-owned resort developer, the latest wrinkle in a decade-long land dispute, the villagers told RFA.
The Union Development Group (UDG) is building the U.S. $3.8 billion Dara Sakor project including a seaport, resorts, and casinos in Cambodia’s southwestern Koh Kong province.
The company was last year sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act for alleged land grabs, rights abuses, and corruption.
Authorities scheduled Thursday and Friday as days when the villagers would accept compensation for their land and put an end to the 10-year dispute, but some of villagers called the compensation scheme unfair.
Villagers have now been divided into three groups according to how affected they are by the developer, Koh Kong Provincial Deputy Governor Sok Sothy said at a meeting with the villagers and the Ministry of Land Management on Oct. 11.
The first group of 247 families would get U.S. $9,000, half a hectare (1 hectare = 2.47 acres) of land for a house and three hectares of land for farming. The second group of 255 families would get two hectares of farming land, and the third group of 831 families would get one hectare.
Under the compensation scheme, the villagers would receive new allotments of land by lottery.
The lottery for group three was held on Thursday, but only 327 of the 831 families accepted the offered compensation.
Sam Thy, a villager from group three, told RFA’s Khmer Service that his family was among those who had refused to accept the deal, saying authorities had forced them to agree without a discussion with the villagers and with representatives of NGOs present.
He said that $8,000 per hectare would be a fair price for his nine hectares of land, but is being given only a single hectare by lottery instead.
Another villager, Tith Tem, 63, told RFA she has 60 hectares of land, but the authorities are only giving her one hectare.
“This is very unjust, and I cannot accept it,” she said, adding that many families in her village have been working and living on their land since the 1980s.
Tith Tem urged the government to provide proper compensation.
“We want a transparency. The land I can get is not even half of what I lost. We can’t accept it. We will protest,” she said.
RFA attempted to reach Deputy Governor Sok Sothy for comment, but he was not available Thursday. He earlier told local media that provincial authorities will continue with their offers and the villagers have the right not to accept it.
UDG’s investment in the area has caused lost income to the villagers for the past 10 years according to Hour In, the Koh Kong provincial coordinator for the Cambodian rights group LICADHO.
“The authorities should consider the scope of what the villagers are losing,” Hour In told RFA.
“The villagers are now saying that if the authorities cannot afford to resolve the issue in accordance with their requests, they should allow them to return to their properties,” he said.
The Dara Sakor project has been mired in controversy ever since UDG’s parent company, Tianjin Wanlong Group, was granted a 99-year lease to 90,000 acres along 20 percent of Cambodia’s coastline in May 2008.
The lease was handed to Tianjin Wanlong without an open bidding process and has provided the company with more than triple the size of any concession allowed under Cambodia’s land law.
UDG soon began clearing large swathes of forest from the Botum Sakor National Park, which was included as part of the land lease, and forced hundreds of families to relocate. Many have yet to receive the compensation they were promised as part of the deal 12 years ago.
China has stepped in to wield significant influence in Cambodia in recent years as relations between Phnom Penh and Western governments have cooled amid concerns over the country’s human rights situation and political environment following a broad crackdown on the political opposition in 2017.
Chinese investment has meanwhile flowed into Cambodia, but Cambodians regularly chafe at what they call unscrupulous business practices and unbecoming behavior by Chinese businessmen and residents.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.