Villagers and rights workers say a multi-million dollar airport planned for Mondolkiri province infringes on sacred forests of the Phnong ethnic minority.
Provincial Governor Lay Sokha said Friday that the airport project covers 150 hectares of land in Sen Monorom district’s Romnea commune. Construction is slated to begin in December.
Lay Sokha said the new airport is needed because villagers have grabbed land around the old one. “At the old airport, villagers just come to build their houses…. So the planes are afraid [to land],” he said.
Sinn Chan Sereyvutha, deputy director of planning and policy at the State Secretariat of Civil Aviation, said the project—expected to cost between $6 and $7 million—is still a ways off. “It is a long-term vision. There is still a long way to go,” he said.
Regardless, Phnong residents from Phoutang village have sought the help of local rights group Vigilance to protest the planned airport.
“It is sacred forest from the ancestors that cannot be chopped down,” 43 year-old villager Tem Pil said Friday. “Our villagers will not allow them to bulldoze it: The sacred forest is the helper when there are problems.”
Lay Sokha said that he was aware of the complaint from the Phnong villagers, but said the airport will not be built on forested land.
“There is no forest. It’s just grass,” he said.
Lay Sokha said he had told villagers Friday that if they have claim on any land where the airport is planned, they must show their land titles. However, he said he was confident there wouldn’t be any legitimate title holders, as district and commune officials have told him they never issued any land titles.
“They said they didn’t issue any titles so the land belongs to the state,” Lay Sokha said.
Vigilance investigator Eam Veasna said that because the land in question is ethnic minority community land, it should be protected under the Land Law.
“It is a place to bury the dead,” he said. “According to the law, they must protect it.”
Sam Sarin, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, said he was worried there would be tense confrontations over the dispute.
“It is a controversial issue, and in Phoutang the land has become expensive,” he said.