Koh Kong, Cambodia – “I’m Cambodian, I’m not illegal here,” said Se Say Hieng, one of the last remaining villagers who refuses to leave land that now belongs to China’s Union Development Group.
Construction on a port and resort city in Koh Kong, southwest Cambodia, began in 2008, and while it appears to have stalled, villagers claim that authorities have continued threatening and harassing them as they refuse to leave the leased land.
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UDG was granted a 99 year lease on 20 percent of Cambodia’s coastline, deep within one of the country’s largest protected areas, for a pittance – less than $100 per hectare each year. A royal decree was needed to make it available for development.
The area leased is more than three times the size of the legal limit for land concessions, villagers and rights groups have said.
Even if a project involves kicking people off their traditional lands, or destroying the world's most important ecosystems, I don't think it would give Chinese financiers or corporations much pause at all.
The project has raised alarm over the implications it has for Cambodia’s sovereignty, environmental damage and human rights.
The United Nations reported in 2012 that thousands of villagers had already been evicted. Local civil rights group Licadho said some homes were burned and forcibly dismantled.
“Since the Chinese came here in 2008, there are always problems,” Say Hieng explains.
Cambodia’s close relationship with China has coincided with a crackdown on political and human rights.
The tilt towards authoritarianism has alienated western donors, but Prime Minister Hun Sen has been happy to replace them with China’s coffers. The arrangement has raised concerns that Beijing is taking advantage of Cambodia.
Say Hieng and her husband live in one of four houses still standing along the southern coast of Botum Sakor National Park.
They lost their farmland to UDG years ago, but still run a motorbike repair shop out of their home.
When asked why she has chosen to fight the Cambodian government and a multi-billion dollar Chinese company, Say Hieng responds modestly.
“We lived here for so long, 24 years,” she said.
“I’m here to show that this place still belongs to me and the company can’t just force people to leave without the owner’s permission.”
Thousands of other families, however, took compensation and moved out.
Say Hieng said she and the other remaining villagers – just four families are left – are threatened regularly.
On May 22, the court called her in and said authorities would tear her house down within two weeks.
“Before I was scared I couldn’t sleep, but it’s been so long it’s become a normal thing,” she said.
“The court is just like that,” her husband added.
When negotiations began, Hieng said the company refused to compensate families for more than five hectares of land and only acknowledged one home per family.
Nhen Moeun’s late husband, Prak Thon, was one of the first to move to the area, Pouy Japon, in 1980.
He built his family home and helped construct the town’s pagoda.
Thon’s grave lies beside his home, despite the fact his wife was ordered repeatedly not to bury him there.
The pagoda remains standing, but is boarded up – the monks were forced to leave.
Some families who agreed to relocation deals said they have buyers’ remorse.
The compensation, they claim, was offered with threats and coercion.
“My husband never negotiated. He was 100 percent staying here until he died. I’m not afraid,” said Moeun who believes it’s her duty to continue her husband’s legacy of resistance.
Around 184 families in Moeun and Say Hieng’s village protest against the company on a daily basis, demanding their land back.
The villagers who accepted compensation have set up camp on the road to their old village.
While they occasionally rally in the capital Phnom Pen, the families man the shelter almost constantly.
Their makeshift centre is complete with hammocks and coolers full of drinks, as women play cards.
Across the road is a sign: “We the 184 families ask the government to please do what was promised.”
Inside the camp, villagers tell stories of how the company and government cheated them. They claim they were promised five hectares of land in the relocation site, but only received two and a half.
They also complain the land they have been given on hilly, forested terrain is unusable for farming.
A visit to the relocation site confirms that the area is unsuitable for farming, and many of the homes are already falling apart.
Rayo Nguyen, an environmental activist with Mother Nature Cambodia, said the last time he visited the area, he camped out in a tent.
When security guards confronted him, he told them he was a tourist who had missed the last boat to the nearby islands.
“They told me they were afraid the Chinese would be angry. I said, ‘I am Cambodian, this is my land’.”
Plans for a deep-water port, airport, and fully functioning mini-city resort are reportedly still in the works, but a recent visit by Al Jazeera revealed construction is not under way.
A large pier stretches out into the ocean, ending abruptly in open water. There are no boats docked or workers on site.
On the way to the resort is a giant lake, created by damming a small river. The lake appears to serve no purpose other than scenery.
Signs forbid bathing or fishing.
Besides preventing Cambodians from using their natural resources, the damming process flooded surrounding farmland.
Multiple golf courses have already been built on the property, with more under construction.
Two apartment complexes are set back from the main road leading up to the resort, possibly to house workers.
The main resort has a casino, a long stretch of a sandy beach, and empty luxury hotels.
Sand is not native to the region.
The only people in sight were labourers tending to the gardens.
Bill Laurance, a professor at Australia’s James Cook University focused on conservation, said he does not regard Chinese investors as reliable development partners.
“Even if a project involves kicking people off their traditional lands, or destroying the world’s most important ecosystems, I don’t think it would give Chinese financiers or corporations much pause at all,” he said. Laurance also said Chinese companies have built and abandoned mega-projects before.
“In Australia, for example, a big Chinese developer suddenly dropped an [$5.8bn] project to build a giant casino and hotel complex in Cairns, completely stranding local businesses, government, and people that had invested enormous energy to promote and support this project,” he explained.
A proposed Chinese-built port in Darwin has apparently also stalled.
Bates Gill, a professor of Asia-Pacific security studies at Macquarie University in Sydney, said some of the “structural realities” of Chinese investment seem to result in a higher tolerance for risk.
Gill said Chinese developers tolerate this risk because they are not as interested in economics as they are in political influence.
“Infrastructure and building projects are really about political favours and patronage – including the possibilities of bribery and influence-buying,” he said.