With the threat of eviction hanging over businesses on Sihanoukville’s O’Chheuteal and O’Tres beaches, land rights advocates congregated in Phnom Penh this week to give voice to thousands of families locked in land disputes with powerful firms turning swaths of coastline into tourism destinations.
Last month, the owners of bars, restaurants and hotels on the popular beaches were given weeks to leave the area or face forced eviction, with the local government accusing the businesses of squatting on state land.
The looming evictions, however, are but a symptom of rapid development in the country’s coastal provinces.
During a press conference in Phnom Penh on Monday, community representatives and rights workers from Preah Sihanouk, Koh Kong, Kampot and Kep presented evidence of more than 40 land disputes that have cropped up along the coast since 2006.
Among the disputes is the ongoing battle between three rice-farming communities in Preah Sihanouk’s Prey Nop district and the Chinese-owned Yeejia Investment Group, which received a 3,300-hectare economic land concession in 2004 to develop a sprawling mega-resort inside Ream National Park.
“Since the Yeejia company came, we have not been able to use our plantations. Even though the company wants to develop, the government should pay attention to us and the impact on our livelihoods,” said Seng Chantha, a representative of families who say they were evicted in 2007 from land they had been living on since 1990—without compensation.
And on Koh Rong island off the coast of Sihanoukville, where local conglomerate Royal Group was awarded the rights to construct a $3 billion resort complex complete with casinos, hotels, golf courses and polo fields in 2008, more than 600 fishing families are still living on land slated for development, according to Sok Sokhom, director of the Cambodian National Research Organization’s Preah Sihanouk branch.
“They are facing eviction, and now the company and the government won’t discuss the issue with them,” he said.
Addressing the looming evictions on O’Chheuteal, Mr. Chantha accused the government of hypocrisy for allowing the powerful Sokha Group to occupy a large plot of land on the beach.
“O’Chheauteal…is state owned, so why can it be occupied by the Sokha Group?” he said.
His sentiment was echoed by Eang Vuthy, executive director of Equitable Cambodia, who rebuked the local government for its “double standards.”
“We all know, based on the Cambodian Land Law, that people don’t have the right to develop or occupy that land because it belongs to the state—50 meters from the beach is considered state property,” Mr. Vuthy said by telephone on Tuesday.
“But I can name some of the hotels, for example the Sokha hotel on O’Chheuteal. It’s right on the beach and it’s huge also, and there are many more,” he said. “This is a double standard. You cannot do that.”
Mr. Vuthy called for the government to adopt a fairer interpretation of the law as it seeks to boost investment along Cambodia’s western seaboard.
“I think they have to have a freer plan, and it needs to be implemented equally. Again, the poor and vulnerable groups need to be paid more attention because they basically rely on these small businesses,” he said. “To evict them is to deprive them of a livelihood.”
Paul Ferber, director of the Kep-based organization Marine Conservation Cambodia, said poor comunication between local and national-level officials was exacerbating confusion over land ownership.
“Once it’s on the ground down there, it’s very difficult because there’s all sorts of small people changing land ownerships and titles and local, provincial people moving things around and payments being made by developers and investors to get things done,” Mr. Ferber said.
“It’s only when the top levels in Phnom Penh find out…what’s going on that it actually starts to be dealt with properly,” he said.
Royal Group chairman Kith Meng declined to comment, while representatives of United International (Cambodia), Yeejia’s parent company, could not be reached.
Cheam Sophal Makara, a spokesman for the Ministry of Land Management, maintained that villagers squatting on state land must be prepared to move to make space for development projects.
He admitted that the Sokha hotel was also on state land but said the company had been renting the plot from the government for many years and had earned the right to stay.
“The Sokha company…they have been renting from the government for longer,” Mr. Makara said.
The smaller establishments, on the other hand, had to move due to being relative newcomers, he said.
“For example, if people wanted to rent the area in front of your house, what would you do? You would move them.”