Chhuk district, Kampot province – Military veterans and disabled villagers who have recently been transplanted with their families to a startup village in Kampot are, for the most part, happily busy setting up house.
Their village, named 317 after the center in Kandal province’s Kien Svay district where they previously lived, was not yet fully functional on Thursday morning, though dozens of recently finished concrete homes-all painted golden yellow and topped off with the same red roof-lined a freshly laid dirt road.
The village, which lies about 5 km off National Road 4 near the intersection of Kampot, Koh Kong and Kompong Speu provinces, has appeared to be something of a pet project for Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has spotlighted the government-funded undertaking in several speeches going back to last year.
Kvan Seam, director of engineering at the Defense Ministry, said Thursday that the government has already spent $3 million to provide each of the roughly 240 families with a house and 1.5 hectares of land to farm, in an effort to jumpstart livelihoods and raise their standard of living.
Despite its unfinished state and relative isolation from surrounding markets, most newcomers to the village said they were pleased with the package.
Bun Moeun, 38, said that when he returned home to Sihanoukville after being demobilized from the military, he found that his land had been given away.
“Only the government gives me land. Now I can grow bananas, sugarcane, mangoes, rice, corn and beans,” he said, adding that his shiny wristwatch sporting the prime minister’s face was not a gift, but something he purchased for $25.
“I want to see Hun Sen’s face everyday,” he said. “I have decided that I am going to stay here my whole life,” he added.
Sok Vat, 32, lost an arm to a landmine 10 years ago and said he is very glad to have made the move from Kien Svay, where they had to rely solely on government handouts.
Sok Vat added that he also appreciates being in a community with others who have experienced warfare and injury.
Chhom Ou, 46, injured both his legs in battle, said he thought being able to tend the land would help him overcome discrimination.
“As long as I [farm] the land, I am not afraid of discrimination,” he said, though he expressed concerns about the lack of a school for his four children, as well as the lack of clean drinking water.
The well near their house was not sealed properly, he said, and rainwater leaks into the drinking water.
Ngin Saorath, Cambodian Disabled People’s Organization executive director, said Thursday that he thinks the village is a good idea in principle, provided that there is access to schools and hospitals.
“People with disabilities mostly live under the poverty line and have no ability to buy land,” he said.
“If they can own land and do agriculture, then they don’t have to become beggars,” he added.
SRP Deputy Secretary-General Mu Sochua said that the giving of land alone is not a solution, and that it needs to be coupled with tangible projects from which the villagers can learn and make a living.
“The whole package is the concept of development,” she said, adding that the location of new village could risk further isolating the disabled.
“It is under the name of development for the disabled, but I don’t see what they have done besides give shelter. There’s nothing else there,” she said.
Kvan Seam said that the construction of a primary school and a hospital is underway, and that the government would consider building a junior high school.
He said the families will achieve full ownership of the land once they have lived there for five years, to ensure that families didn’t sell the land right away.
He added that Hun Sen’s plan for the community included providing the veterans with vocational training.
“The government does not leave them. We are watching for them,” he said.