BOTUM SAKOR DITRICT, Koh Kong province – About 50 families gathered under a timber roof here Sunday among muddy fields granted to them as compensation after China’s Union Development Group (UDG) began to turn their coastal homeland into a $3.8-billion tourist mecca.
The families, who now live in timber houses dotting the barren land 20 km from the coast, were expecting a visit from Surya Subedi, the Nepalese academic on his 11th tour of Cambodia as the U.N.’s human rights envoy, who was apparently curious about their grievances.
Since 2010, when the Union Development Group began construction on its 45,000-hectare land concession carved out of a national park two years earlier, more than 1,000 families have been expelled from the forested cape they once farmed and fished to support themselves.
Most say they were forced to accept compensation packages when construction on the 25-year project started, after local authorities and sometimes even soldiers threatened violent evictions and homelessness if they did not yield.
As recently as February this year, two Chinese staff from UDG allegedly threatened to unleash “paratroopers” on the few remaining families who refused to disappear from the beachside area, which is already dominated by neo-colonial-style stone buildings and a manicured golf course. Soldiers armed with AK-47s, who patrolled the road leading to the development Sunday, had reportedly accompanied the pair of UDG representatives.
Those who have accepted compensation complain of empty promises.
“We only ask for proper compensation,” said Sok Sann, 56, a villager now living on the resettlement site. “The company cheated us, telling us we will have infrastructure here, but there is nothing.”
Mr. Sann said he hoped the U.N. would assist the villagers, who he said have been without any support from local officials since it became clear the project was sanctioned by the top levels of government.
“This company is like an elephant, and we are like ants,” he said.
But Mr. Subedi’s planned meeting with the evicted families was not to be. The rights envoy fell sick in Sihanoukville and returned to Phnom Penh on Sunday.
In his place, Wan-Hea Lee, the head of the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia, met with the villagers in their homes before heading to the development.
“I’ve just come from a meeting with those affected by the development by UDG, and I’ve come with an armful of petitions,” Ms. Lee told the small company delegation that met her in one of UDG’s stone buildings.
Led by Li Tao, the company’s Koh Kong projects chief, the delegation sat and listened to Ms. Lee, who described UDG’s work on the project thus far as “frankly amazing” before reeling off a list of complaints from the villagers.
She listed absence of water and electricity at the relocation sites, land that is unsuitable for farming, and armed security patrols who both prevented lifelong fishermen from accessing the coast and threatened holdout families.
“I am compelled to ask you the question: Are you aware of this?” Ms. Lee said of the alleged use of soldiers against villagers. “And what will you do to ensure that violence will not be resorted to in the future?”
Ms. Lee’s remarks were delivered in a 20-minute block, and translated from English into Khmer and then from Khmer into Chinese—a process that rendered precise conversation impossible, and ensured that few questions were answered.
“Our project has proceeded according to Cambodian law and it has received authorization from the Cambodian government,” Mr. Li said of the evictions, with the translation process reversed.
“About 90 percent of the families have already moved to the compensation site, and they see the compensation as acceptable,” he said. “There is less than 10 percent left, and those people are negotiating…to find a solution.”
The development, which is being built in five-year stages, and will include its own international seaport, airport and multiple hotels, is already partly operational, with a small group of weekenders Sunday evening relaxing between the golf course and what is for now the main office.
“We can’t confirm the opening time. It depends on the world economy and the Cambodian economy,” said Wang Chao, the communications manager for UDG in Cambodia, prior to the meeting with the U.N.
Mr. Wang said he was not aware of the U.N. human rights office, but welcomed its delegation’s visit. He said securing full control of the 45,000-hectare plot from the dispossessed villagers and then constructing permanent quarters for staff are UDG’s next tasks.
“Then maybe we can invite a world-famous hotel to come in and open 1,000 rooms and tell everyone to come here,” Mr. Wang said.
“It’ll be five-star, maybe even six-star.”
© 2014, All rights reserved.