Prime Minister Hun Sen inaugurated a $360 million sugar processing plant in Preah Vihear province on Tuesday, espousing the benefits that the Chinese-owned factory would bring to the indigenous communities it has displaced.
Government heavyweights, officials from the Chinese Embassy and representatives of the firm, Rui Feng, were on hand for a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the morning that members of an ethnic Kuoy community say they were prevented from attending.
“This is both agro-industry and agro-business,” Mr. Hun Sen told a crowd of thousands, including police, soldiers and members of government-aligned youth groups, at the Tbeng Meanchey district facility, which includes a 40,000 hectare sugar plantation.
“This location is for producing white sugar, but we must not forget that it is [also] very important for our farmers,” the prime minister said. “Our farmers have to sell their products—particularly sugar cane that they grow—which is the agro-business market here.”
Before breaking to teach locals a dance he had learned over the Khmer New Year holiday, Mr. Hun Sen also explained the initial aims of the facility: to produce half a million tons of sugar per year, and to generate upward of 30 MW of electricity from sugarcane waste.
“So we will not need to bring electricity from Phnom Penh. This factory will be able to supply electricity to the province’s districts and can also supply the steel factories here,” he said, adding that he would ask the Ministry of Mines and Energy to reassess the government’s plan to supply the area with electricity imported from Laos.
Indigenous communities in central Preah Vihear have for years been feuding with Rui Feng and other firms with government-granted concessions on their ancestral land.
In his speech on Tuesday, the prime minister called for “harmony” between investors and locals, saying residents could now use roads and irrigation systems built around the plant “without paying.”
“Also, people nearby and in other provinces will have jobs to do,” he said, pointing to the factory as an alternative to illegal migration to Thailand and elsewhere.
However, according to one of about 180 protesting Kuoy villagers who claimed they were blocked by police from attending on Tuesday’s ceremony, they were not interested in the infrastructure or jobs being peddled by the premier.
“People who used to have land are not happy with the job offers,” said 65-year-old Nuon Mon, who claims Rui Feng grabbed a 9,000-square-meter plot of land she once owned.
“We don’t want to work for them on our own land,” she said. “They are no use to us.”
Provincial police chief Sy Kiri denied that officers had prevented anyone from attending the inauguration ceremony.
“We did not ban anyone from participating. Many participants went there in many cars, electric cows [tractors] and by other means,” he said.
“A lot of space was set aside for them and it still wasn’t filled. There was no problem.”