About 200 villagers locked in a land dispute with the Chinese-owned Union Development Group (UDG) in Koh Kong province said they were warned on Friday that “paratroopers” would be brought in if they continued to block a road to the company’s headquarters in Botum Sakor National Park.
The dispute between villagers and the Chinese firm, which is building a massive tourism resort on 45,000 hectares of land, has raged since 2008. But, it reached a new level of tension on January 21 when 45 homes belonging to the villagers were razed, allegedly by security forces working for UDG.
On Wednesday, about 140 villagers began blocking a road leading to UDG’s offices, which led to a brief clash between the protesters and 40 UDG security guards and six soldiers armed with AK-47 assault rifles. On Friday, some 200 villagers moved to make their presence on the blocked road more permanent, erecting tents and laying large stones across the 55-km-long thoroughfare which links UDG’s offices to the provincial capital.
“We decided to build the tents to block the road, preventing all of the company’s vehicles and other drivers from passing along the road,” said 58-year-old protester Sun Kim Soeun, who claimed police handcuffed her for three hours last month while her makeshift 5- by 6-meter home was torched.
“Two Chinese men from UDG with a Cambodian translator came to warn us that they would use paratroopers to disperse the blockade,” Ms. Kim Soeun said in a telephone interview from the protest site.
“I am not afraid of their threat to use paratroopers to clear me and other protesters from the road. If we don’t protest, we will still die. So I need to stand my ground and demand land and compensation for losing all my property in the fire,” Ms. Kim Soeun said.
Kiri Sakor District Governor Khoem Chandy said on Friday that the authorities in his district and Botum Sakor district ordered about 100 families to vacate their land by October to make way for UDG’s planned, $3.8-billion resort of hotels, golf courses and a private airport.
“[M]any have refused to leave, even though they were given new houses at a relocation site,” Mr. Chandy said.
“Because of the bad traffic jam, we cannot allow them to keep blocking the road,” he said, adding that access to Koh Sdech commune is also snarled as a result of the blockade.
Mr. Chandy dismissed the villagers’ allegations that UDG representatives had threatened to use paratroopers against the protesters, insisting that the protest would not turn violent.
“It is not true. My people at the protest site confirmed that the Chinese company’s representatives just went down to take photographs of the protest and road-blockade,” he said.
However, Neang Boratino, Koh Kong provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, confirmed that the threats to unleash the elite military unit had been very real.
“Firstly, there was a representative of the Chinese company photographing the protest and then a second group consisted of two Chinese men wearing civilian clothes accompanied by a translator, who threatened to use paratroopers to break up the protest,” he said.
“After hearing the intimidation against the villagers, we are concerned about protesters’ security, so we appeal for the authorities to use nonviolent methods rather than using the military to crack down,” Mr. Boratino said.
On January 2, paratroopers from Brigade 911 brutally beat and detained 15 union leaders, monks and garment factory protesters while deployed to protect a South Korean-owned clothing factory in Phnom Penh’s Pur Senchey district. The government has been unable to explain why members of the Special Forces were deployed to protect a foreign company.
Mr. Chandy said he would call on the authorities to hold a meeting between the provincial governor and the Chinese company to see if a resolution could be reached, though compensation was out of his jurisdiction.
“From now on, we promise villagers that no more evictions will take place,” he said.
“If there are any security forces that come to remove villagers’ residences, I will send the police to help” the villagers, he added.