kien svay district, Kandal province – Rin Po sat in the shade of a lone tree with dozens of other villagers in Kandal Leu village Tuesday afternoon, meters away from six deserted excavators and bulldozers.
A few hours earlier, the heavy construction equipment had been 2 km away, working on a dike and canal that, once completed, would enclose 220 hectares of land in the district’s Banteay Dek commune.
While the majority of the land is empty and unworked, villagers say they own it and that it has provided food and income in the form of corn, rice and peppers to three villages—Kandal Leu, Kandal Krom and Khsom—since 1993.
“All the people are living off the land,” Rin Po said.
At around 9:30 am on Tuesday, Rin Po and between 200 and 300 other angry villagers surrounded the six construction machines and forced them to stop working on what is envisioned to be a massive shrimp farm and retirement land for 52 veteran RCAF officers.
According to documents, the 220 hectares, located about 40 km from Phnom Penh, was awarded in 1999 to a little-known organization called the Veteran and War Victim Association for Economic Development.
The organization was apparently founded in 1994 and is comprised of 52 current and former soldiers, mostly RCAF officers, said its president Chhin Seng on Wednesday.
While the association has proposed numerous projects during its existence, he said funding shortages had killed all of them. Finally, the association had the idea of creating a shrimp farm on the 220 hectares with irrigation and road networks.
“It’s kind of the place for retirement,” he said.
There were only a few villagers living nearby at the time the plan was hatched, Chhin Seng said, adding that the farms that exist today will be incorporated into the new development.
“We dare not touch their farms,” he said. However, the large amount of unworked land in the area of the villages has never been developed and is now earmarked for the organization’s project, he said.
“We have to make the land useful first,” he said. “We will have an irrigation system so it will also help the people nearby.”
The 220 hectares will be divided into sections for the 52 members of the veteran’s association, each of whom contributed about $4,000 for the project after trying to solicit funds from other organizations, including the government, without success.
Rin Po and other villagers who have lived in the area since 1993 said that the first they heard of the association or the project was when heavy machinery started digging the canal and building the dyke several weeks ago.
Then too, villagers surrounded the excavators and bulldozers and forced them to stop work. But after the machines pulled out, they simply went to different areas and continued working. It has happened several times.
“It’s just going on and on,” Rin Po said. “[Villagers] asked the drivers of the excavators to stop but when the villagers go home, they start operating again.”
In response to their protests, commune chief Keo Un sent a letter to the villagers on May 20 telling them they had one month to apply for titles to the disputed land.
“The commune chief [Keo Un] appealed to us to apply for the land titles, but while we are applying they continue digging around the land,” villager Tep Bunly complained on Tuesday.
“We want the excavators to stop digging while we are applying for the land title,” he said.
Keo Un blamed Tuesday’s confrontation on the veteran’s association’s efforts to continue to build the canal without consulting commune officials or the villagers.
Chhin Seng, however, has accused the villagers of trying to claim the land and said suspending operations would only encourage others villagers to do the same.
“It’s not their land,” he said, adding that he plans to have the excavators and bulldozers back at work today despite the villagers protests.
“After the project, there will be good farmland,” he said.