Despite Land Loss, Minorities Back Status Quo

ANDONG MEAS DISTRICT, Ratanakkiri province – Romam Gvin could be described as a counterintuitive voter.

Intuition might lead you to believe that Mr. Gvin blames the government for the loss of his land to the Vietnamese rubber company that now owns everything for as far as the eye can see here in remote Talav commune—and quite a bit beyond.

Using that same intuition, you might think that Mr. Gvin will vote on July 28 to change the ministers and the local bureaucrats he blames for consigning his family of seven young children to certain poverty.

Well, you would be wrong.

Mr. Gvin, a 35-year-old member of the Kachak ethnic minority, is voting for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling CPP. Why? Because Mr. Gvin trusts what he sees, not what is promised.

“We will vote for the CPP even if there are some problems,” he said last week while eyeing groups of Vietnamese plantation workers who whizzed by on motorcycles on their way to plant rubber tree saplings where forests used to stand.

Though the political opposition has promised to reverse the economic land concession policies that have led to many ethnic minorities losing their ancestral land in Ratanakkiri, Mr. Gvin is not convinced.

“We have roads and no war,” he said, standing in the shade of a roadside shack that sold the necessities for rural life: cigarettes, gasoline, bags of rice, soft drinks and cans of beer.

Without the red earth road that provides access to his area, any land, even the hectares he has lost to the plantation, is useless, Mr. Gvin said. And with seven children to feed in Inh village, Mr. Gvin said his vote is for that other important arm of the ruling party—the Cam­bodian Red Cross (CRC).

“When we need food, such as when there is flooding, the Red Cross comes to help us,” he said. “The CPP and the Red Cross are the same thing because they are husband and wife,” he added, referring to Mr. Hun Sen’s wife, Bun Rany, and her position as president of the CRC.

Even though the CPP didn’t help him save his land, and he and the other members of his village protested more than 10 times, he casts blame firmly on the rubber plantation company, a subsidiary of Hoang Anh Gia Lai, and not the government that gave them the license that has turned this entire area into one huge agro-industry farm.

“All the crops belong to the Vietnamese [company] and we are only the workers,” he said, explaining that while casual jobs are available on the plantations, they are poorly paid and the days are long. The residents of Inh village are now resigned to their fate, he added. “We let it be. We have no choice. We can’t beat them.”

The road that passes nearby Mr. Gvin’s village once led, bumpily and torturously, to the Virachey National Park. Follow that same, smoother red earth thoroughfare today, and the route quickly leads to private concessionaires’ lands, where heavy trucks for hauling trees and mechanical excavators are parked behind checkpoints made of lengths of painted bamboo poles and signs that warn unauthorized visitors to keep out.

Ask Mr. Gvin about travel to the national park, and he says that no one goes there now. “Companies block the road,” he said.

Andong Meas district governor Nong Darith said concession companies, such as Try Pheap Import Export and An Mady Group, had resurfaced the old road that stretches to the park, which is known locally as the Dragon’s Tail.

“The companies invested in the areas and without permission from them, we cannot go through the checkpoints,” Mr. Darith said, adding that locals still have access to their villages.

Even for the park’s forest rangers, travel is easier if they go through Vietnam then swing back into the Drag­on’s tail and Cambodia.

In 2004, the Cambodia-Laos-Vietnam Development Triangle area was created by the three governments as a way to tap the economic potential of their relatively remote highland border provinces, and to bring the minority populations into the cultural and economic mainstream.

In the near decade since the signing of the Development Triangle agreement, Ratanakkiri has transformed from a sleepy and difficult to access province to one of the fastest growing regions in the country as Khmer and foreign investors pour in to buy up land for rubber, cassava, pepper and cashew plantations. Huge swathes of the province’s forests, which were predominately the richly bio-diverse “secondary forests” that the ethnic minorities cultivated in a fallow rotational system, have simply disappeared.

The forests have been replaced by hypnotically symmetrical rows of rubber trees and other cash crops stretching in every direction outward from the provincial town Banlung, where the U.S. agricultural machinery giant John Deere has a dealership prominently located on the edge of town, right next door to Angkor Beer’s modern and imposing provincial distribution warehouse. Large luxurious karaoke parlors, hotels and the late-night Galaxy disco also feature prominently along the same stretch of Route 78—evidence that the economic benefit of those plantations are being reaped by some.

Romam Thvel, 54, a Jarai ethnic minority member, has not benefited from the windfall in the emerging “rubber triangle”—though hundreds of hectares of land that his village once owned is now producing a steady stream of valuable latex.

He and dozens of other residents of Kong Yu village in O’Yadaw district have fought for nine years in the courts to get 450 hectares of land back that they say was grabbed from them by the sister of Finance Minister Keat Chhon.

Their lawyers have worked tirelessly in the seemingly impossible hope of receiving justice while the plantation workers of Keat Kolney have toiled equally hard to raise rubber trees on the hundreds of acres of land the Jarai villagers claim were stolen from them.

But ask Mr. Thvel whom he will vote for come July 28, and his response is not unlike that of Mr. Gvin in Andong Meas district.

“I’m not sure who I will vote for,” Mr. Thvel said after some minutes of deep contemplation. “I have not made up my mind,” he said, recounting how he voted for Mr. Hun Sen in the U.N.-organized elections in 1993—the first vote he had ever cast.

For Mr. Thvel, there is little if any connection between voting in the election to choose a new government and his village’s tribulations with the rubber plantation next door—even if it is owned by the sister of a senior CPP minister.

Choosing a government is a serious business, Mr. Thvel said, explaining that change is not necessarily a good thing.

“Why would we vote for anyone else? Hun Sen built the roads, built the schools. What’s the use in voting for the opposition,” said Romam Net, 42, a neighbor of Mr. Thvel who also lost land to Keat Kolney’s plantation.

While Mr. Net is not impartial—he is the village’s CPP representative—he is quickly able to apportion blame for the loss of ethnic minority land, including his own, in Ra­tanakkiri. But none of the responsibility goes to the government.

“The problem is going to the court,” Mr. Net said of his village’s seven-year long legal battle with Ms. Kolney.

“If we had come together [with the government] we would have a solution,” he said, explaining that the correct path should have been to keep the dispute inside the power hierarchy of the ruling CPP.

“Here we work together: village, commune, district and provincial level,” Mr. Net said, adding that his village basically brought the problem on themselves.

Mr. Net might have a point when the divisions between the state, ruling party and judiciary are non-existent at the best of times.

The wisdom of elders plays a central role in hill tribe culture, and despite the many cases of land grabbing from ethnic minorities in the province, the residents of Kong Yu and elsewhere tend to remain loyal to the CPP, said Chhay Thy, Ratanakkiri provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc.

In the 1980s, after the fall of the Pol Pot regime, several ethnic minority members rose to senior positions inside the government of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, and the majority of senior provincial government positions were traditionally held by ethnic minority members of the CPP.

Loyalties along tribal lines extended along party lines and the CPP has traditionally had strong support in Ratanakkiri, and still does regardless of the land issue, he said.

“The governor, police chief, district chiefs were all hill tribes, so what they do is support each other,” said Mr. Thy, whose wife is Jarai.

The CPP’s candidate for the one Ratanakkiri parliamentary seat come July 28, Bou Lam, also has important appeal for ethnic minorities.

Mr. Lam is the younger brother of the storied CPP veteran and ethnic Tampoun leader Bou Thong who organized an early rebellion against the Khmer Rouge regime and led thousands of minorities to a safe area straddling the border with Vietnam, thus saving them from the slaughter that engulfed the rest of the country.

Bou Thong, who was National Assembly member for Ratanakkiri and is now a senator, has long symbolized for minorities the respect afforded them by the CPP.

“No companies have encroached upon the villagers’ farms and Sam­dech Hun Sen will not allow any companies grab the people’s land,” Mr. Lam said Sunday in a telephone interview. “Our people here do not care about the opposition party,” he said.

But the traditional bonds of support might be shifting, Mr. Thy said, noting that the opposition did better in last year’s commune elections in some areas where land disputes had erupted. And, increasingly, minorities no longer hold several senior provincial government positions, he said—the current provincial governor Pao Ham Phan is Khmer.

Lum village in O’Yadaw district is one area where the CPP legacy among ethnic minorities is al­ready flagging.

Surrounded on all sides by economic land concessions granted to Vietnamese and local Cambodian businesses, the Jarai here said the only time government officials get involved is when they are warned by them to not protest against the plantation owners.

“I don’t want to keep these leaders. I want to change,” said Sev Hvinh, sitting among a group of Lum residents each eager to tell their story about the injustice of land loss.

While the bulldozing of forests to make way for rubber plantations around Lum village has slowed, they believe the respite is only to stave off criticism of the government’s land concession policy ahead of the election.

Once votes are cast on July 28, the denuding of the district will begin in earnest, they say, which is why some here are voting for the opposition.

“We want to see real democracy,” said Mr. Hvinh, who admitted that he could not define what he meant by “democracy,” but he could explain what it is not.

“I can’t tell you what democracy is, but we know what communism is. So a change in that is what we want. We know how communists work. Now we want to see how democrats work.”

The government policy of promoting rubber plantations as a means to mass rural employment and development is flawed, according to Mr. Hvinh.

Recounting the plight of his relative who lives across the border in Vi­etnam’s central highlands where the Jarai lost their land decades ago to plantations, he said working as a waged laborer on a rubber plantation is not a means to living a better life.

“Vietnam is filled with rubber plantations, but they are only developed for themselves [the owners], not for us,” Mr. Hvinh said, adding that he warned minority communities like Mr. Gvin’s in Andong Meas that would happen if they refused to protest.

“I scolded them: ‘You should speak out against injustice.’ If you keep silent you will get nothing. You will be a worker forever on your own land,” he said.

Romah Svath, 47, a neighbor, had his own advice for minority communities who have sold their land with the view to taking up work on rubber plantations.

“They don’t understand about the future and that there will be nothing for their grandchildren…when they lose their land.”

In a paper written last year on the Cambodia Development Triangle area by the Institute of Developing Economies-Japanese External Trade Organization, a prescient warning note is included: “Although the development of CDTA [Cambodia Development Triangle Area] provinces is expected to bring benefits to the provincial people in terms of increased investment, trade and greater income-generating opportunities, there are also undesired consequences for the people of CDTA provinces: displacement of local communities, spread of communicable diseases, human trafficking and illegal trade, and increased land prices.”

“There will also be an environmental impact, such as deforestation for rapid exploitation of natural resources in the provinces and environmental degradation from pollution and waste disposal issues, etc.”

Reth Ren, 38, moved from Kompong Cham province to Ratanakkiri’s O’Chum district in 2008 to work in the rubber plantations that have usurped so many in the name of economic development.

Five years in Ratanakkiri and Mr. Ren and his neighbors are a living contradiction of the rubber to riches equation.

Sitting outside a 4- by 5-meter barrack-like brick room, which he shares with his wife, brother and teenage son, all of whom work as rubber tappers, Mr. Ren was preparing for his shift, which starts at 2 a.m. and finishes at 10 a.m., when it becomes too hot to work.

Tapping rubber is a labor-intensive job, but Mr. Ren said he is used to the seven days per week schedule with no time off. He is also used to the snakes that stalk the plantations and he is trying to avoid malaria, which is present in the area. The $160 dollars per month is just enough to get by, he says, explaining that his greatest expense is food, which he must purchase entirely as he has no land to cultivate even the smallest essentials.

“If we had our own land it would be better,” Mr. Ren said. “We would be self-dependent and not dependent on others.”

Lack of land was what drove him from Kompong Cham to Ratanak­kiri, and now Mr. Ren’s dream is to one day have land where he can grow his own food, build a house, and eventually have something to leave to his children.

Rubber tapping is only for those who have no land and “no choice” in life, chimed in Yeak Rin, 52, a neighbor of Mr. Ren’s in the block house provided by the plantation.

“It’s not like a slave,” he said of rubber tapping. “But if we don’t work we don’t have anything to eat.”

Rubber and other plantations have been good for their owners, though whether they have been good for Ratanakkiri is another question, said Seang Hieng, a foreman on a plantation.

Having lived for 10 years in the province after moving from Kompong Cham, Mr. Hieng has seen a lot of changes. There are new cars, motorcycles and bigger homes.

“There are a lot of rich people here, but not a lot of development,” he said, gesturing to a nearby, dirt road to emphasize his point.

“Wealth here is only among individuals.”

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