About 150 protesters in Stung Treng province succeeded on Wednesday in stopping local authorities from demolishing a bridge spanning the Sre Pok river that would otherwise be flooded by the nearly completed Lower Sesan II hydropower dam, though the reprieve may be short-lived.
“The provincial authority [began] removing the Sre Pok bridge on Thursday morning because the bridge will flood when the hydroelectric power company closes the dam next month,” Hou Sam Ol, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said on Thursday. “People protested against the removal because they want to keep the bridge for crossing.”
Provincial spokesman Men Kong confirmed that the protesters halted demolition and said the authorities would try to find a solution for the residents, who say the bridge is a crucial artery to Stung Treng City. He blamed the protest on a misunderstanding.
“Those people have protested because they saw our provincial authority removing the bridge, and we did not explain clearly about the reason of the removal,” he said, adding that authorities would still remove the bridge “soon.”
Many of the protesters are holdouts who have refused compensation offers to leave their homes, which sit on land that authorities say will flood once the dam begins testing on July 15.
One of them, Sre Kor commune chief Seak Mekong, said the demolition attempt was an insult to the bridge’s royal provenance from the 1960s.
“I think that the action of the provincial authority is completely wrong,” he said. “They are now destroying the achievement of former King Norodom Sihanouk.”
Mr. Mekong said that 93 families in Sre Kor and another 51 in Kbal Romeas have declined compensation and were refusing to leave their homes to make way for the dam.
They’re playing a dangerous game, according to the provincial spokesman, Mr. Kong, who said the dam’s initial testing would begin as scheduled on the 15th and that it would be completely closed by year’s end.
“I think that they must leave that area, because they are not able to stay there anymore if they close the dam,” he said. “We already prepared a new village for those families.”
Sut Thoeun, a 37-year-old local who joined Wednesday’s protest and is currently staying in his home in Sre Kor village, said he had no plans to move to the new village.
“We will not leave the original villages because it is easy to make money from a small business,” he said, adding that the people would not know how to start new jobs if they were to be relocated to the new village.
The dam is being built by local conglomerate Royal Group, owned by powerful tycoon Kith Meng. Its construction has been dogged by accusations of illegal logging and timber laundering.
Prime Minister Hun Sen said last month that the dam would have no negative environmental impacts, a statement flatly rejected by local and international NGOs, which have suggested the dam could seriously impact the entire Tonle Sap basin.
The dam has also been a black eye for the World Bank, which has helped fund the project through its private lending arm. Last year, a group of NGOs urged the bank to bring the project in line with its own safeguards, meant to keep affected locals from ending up worse off, or to stop backing it.