Koh Rong Land Dispute Flares Up With Reports of Arrests

Tensions are rising in one of the country’s hottest tourist destinations as a lingering land dispute stretching back almost a decade has again flared up.

The Royal Group, the business conglomerate owned by tycoon Kith Meng, received a land concession in 2008 to develop 5,000 hectares of the 7,830-hec­tare Koh Rong island and 2,450-hectare Koh Rong Samloem island, putting forward a $3.38 billion plan with casinos, hotels, golf courses and polo fields.

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Children play in a fishing village on the shore of Koh Rong island in 2010. (Aaron Bradford/Creative Commons)

Little of the proposed development has progressed, however, with a $30 million five-star villa complex under construction but reportedly tied up in red tape.

The islands off the coast of Sihanoukville have been surging in popularity in recent years. Last month, National Geographic added Lazy Beach on Koh Rong Samloem to its list of the world’s best beaches, and news.com.au labeled Cambodia’s island getaways as 2017’s “it destination.”

On Tuesday, Royal Group representative Chhun Buntha and deputy Preah Sihanouk provincial police chief Nop Panha visited the island. According to villagers living within the Royal Group’s concession, the pair threatened them with eviction.

Mr. Buntha said the villagers were warned to stop clearing protected forests.

Chy Viley, whose family has been living on Koh Rong since 1991, cultivating coconut trees, cashews and jackfruit, said Mr. Buntha threatened her family’s home and livelihood.

Mr. Buntha and the deputy police chief “came to the area and told villagers that the company would remove us soon because we were living on state land,” she said on Thursday.

Mr. Buntha, however, denied Ms. Viley’s account of the meeting.

“The company has no plan to evict those families. We just wanted provincial authorities to stop people from clearing the forest,” Mr. Buntha said.

He said police arrested 11 people for clearing state forests, but they were released after being warned not to do it again.

Noun Bunthol, head of the provincial intersectoral division, said national authorities would settle the land dispute.

“We are now waiting for a decision from the government, and if the government decides to divvy up the land for the families, we will issue land titles for

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