KOH RONG – A ceremony here on Saturday, attended by some of the country’s most powerful officials, laid out Royal Group’s $30 million plan to develop Koh Rong’s previously pristine Sok San beach into a luxury resort, complete with houses, piers, hotels and facilities for helicopters.
The conglomerate’s chairman, Kith Meng – one of Cambodia’s wealthiest tycoons – showed the Kingdom’s Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng around the site of the island’s first significant property development.
While many have heralded the new development as an opportunity for an extra level of tourism, improvement and investment on the already popular island, others have expressed concern for the future of Koh Rong’s soul.
Doubts About “Progress”
“We’ve been living with the specter of large-scale development hanging over us for years,” said one Koh Rong business-owner, most of whom prefer not to be named when talking about Royal Group.
“So at least now we know for sure it’s happening and the entire island is probably going to change as a result.”
“The ceremony looked nice,” said another long-time expatriate in Koh Tuch village. “But I’m a bit cynical about the whole thing, seeing as it’s only been a few months since Royal Group were sending threatening letters to me and others, delivered by military police.”
While the future of Koh Tuch as a haven for backpackers and budget travellers seems secure – for the short-term at least – the fate of Sok San, previously an unspoiled five kilometer stretch of glorious white sand, appears all but sealed. “The development of Sok San into some kind of resort was inevitable,” says one bar-owner.
“If that happens, but they leave our village [Koh Tuch] alone, we’ll take that. But we [locals and business-owners] are by no means convinced about Royal Group’s benevolent intentions.”
Villagers Remain Worried
Interior Minister Sar Kheng gave assurances on Saturday in a speech, directed partially to villagers in attendance at the first function held at the inauguration of the “Royal Sands Resort” on Sok San beach. “Don’t worry about the development project,” he said, claiming it was being built “for them” and “not to make trouble.”
“We will not do it if development affects villagers… We will implement the ‘tiger skin’ policy,” he said, referring to an approach that aims to protect the rights of those already living on land concessions, as the stripes of a tiger are constant on its skin. “We have to keep that land for people,” he said.
But some villagers argue they have already been affected, with many having previously shared evidence of crops being destroyed by Royal Group machinery and planned roads threatening nearby homes. Others have alleged that police here have acted as hired muscle for the company, threatening residents and attempting to intimidate business-owners and village elders.
While many here have been partially reassured by Mr. Kheng’s words, some remain skeptical. “I would like to ask to him to respect his word, and not just make people happy now and later on force us from our land,” one villager said, summarizing the widely-held worries of many.
Optimism for Koh Rong’s Future
The wariness and skepticism follows tension this year between Royal Group and locals as small-scale development took place, sometimes resulting in legal disputes and protests.
But others are more optimistic, even excited, about the plans. There is little doubt on the island that a responsible level of development will be incredibly helpful for its residents and visitors, who currently suffer from a lack of infrastructure and basic services.
Transport around the island remains a logistical nightmare, whilst access to healthcare and quality education is a constant worry. According to Pierre Kann, a long-time Khmer island resident, business-owner and director of Save Cambodian Marine Life, there is more to be happy with, than to worry about. “The words of Mr. Kheng have made people happy,” said Mr. Kann. “They’re making clear distinctions about what land is reserved for villagers and delegating government administration to help with that.” Royal Group has also committed to build a school in Sok San village, according to Mr. Kann, which is a sure-fire way to gain more support in the community.
As for Koh Rong’s long-term future, Mr. Kann thinks that officials plan to develop city-like administration with departments for environment, tourism and land management, for example. “For people like me [conservationists and businesspeople] this is good as it means we can work more closely with government officials to solve problems.”
As for Koh Tuch village and its nearby beaches remaining a backpacker haven and low-budget getaway – that future seems secure for now, according to most here, as Royal Group intensively focuses on their Sok San flagship development.
The future of Koh Tuch – Koh Rong’s most popular hangout for backpackers and budget travellers – is secure for now, while nearby Sok San beach will soon be developed by Royal Group. KT/Jack Laurenson