Environment Minister Say Sam Al and a group of NGOs on Monday agreed to cooperate to resolve a years long dispute between hundreds of families in Koh Kong province and a Chinese company they accuse of stealing their land.
The Union Development Group (UDG) has evicted about 1,000 families to make way for a massive, $3.8-billion tourism project in the middle of the province’s Botum Sakor National Park. However, a few hundred families are still resisting eviction orders and have occasionally engaged in violent clashes with the company’s employees and security guards.
With the help of CPP Senator Ly Yong Phat, who represents Koh Kong, representatives of six NGOs landed a private meeting with Mr. Sam Al—at the senator’s Phnom Penh Hotel—to discuss the conflict.
After the meeting, the minister’s deputy cabinet chief, Srun Darith, said Mr. Sam Al had agreed to work closely with the NGOs representing the families to resolve the dispute, first by determining exactly how many families were still involved.
“The big problem is that the number of families is not clear because the NGOs and the company have different figures,” he said.
Of the 1,137 families originally involved in the conflict, the NGOs said that more than 300 are still fighting the company, according to Mr. Darith. The company says the figure is closer to 200.
“We will take the time to go down there to see the area again,” he said. “The government wants to help the people and the NGOs also want to help the people, so we will find a solution together.”
Mr. Darith said the NGOs were asked to bring documents from the families proving their rights to the contested land. None of the families have titles to the land.
Suon Bunsak, head of the secretariat of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a coalition of local rights groups who participated in the meeting, said he hoped the discussion would mark a shift in the government’s willingness to work with the NGOs.
“The minister [Mr. Sam Al] showed very good will in seeking and welcoming cooperation,” he said. “He said, ‘My phone, 24 hours, it’s never shut down.’”
Mr. Bunsak said the next step was for the NGOs to come up with a plan for how to settle the dispute. The NGOs hope to submit the plan to the Environment Ministry sometime next month.
Prak Thorn, who has lived in the area since 1983 and whose family is among those still feuding with UDG, said he was skeptical that the company would cede ground, and that he would accept nothing short of the return of the farmland that had been taken from him.
“Me and the 18 families in Preksmach village had 35 hectares and do not want to move, even if the company pays a lot of money to compensate us, because we have a school and a pagoda here, and we have lived here for a long time,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)