Interior Minister Sar Kheng yesterday said provincial authorities have faced challenges while relocating thousands of Khmer Cham and ethnic Vietnamese residents living on the Tonle Sap river in Kampong Chhnang province.
Speaking to hundreds of government officials in Tboung Khmum province, Mr Kheng said Kampong Chhnang was the first province to relocate hundreds of people living on floating villages to dry land in a bid to protect the environment.
“There are a number of issues we are facing at the moment, and we cannot avoid it. So we must overcome it and prioritize the environmental issue,” Mr Kheng said, referring to waste disposal which polluted the river.
He noted only a small number of ethnic Vietnamese residents are still living along the river banks in Kampong Chhnang city and a resolution will be reached.
“The move is under voluntary basis. There are Khmer Cham and Vietnamese migrants. Now all Khmer Cham families have been moved. Only a number of Vietnamese residents are still there on the river banks feeding fish and we will relocate all of them in the near future,” Mr Kheng said.
“We will not oppress foreigners [ethnic Vietnamese residents] who come to live in the country. We will send them back only if they commit crimes or are illegal immigrants,” he said.Mr Kheng also appealed to people not to discriminate against them once they are moved to dry land.
Deputy Kampong Chhnang Governor Sun Sovannarith said authorities are struggling to relocate about 750 ethnic Vietnamese families living on the river banks with their fishing cages.
“The problem we are facing is the infrastructure under construction. We are unable to provide enough clean water, electricity, and roads to all of them. So the relocation takes time to finish,” Mr Sovannarith said.
He added that the 750 families have been given permission to temporarily stay on the river, but must relocate by the middle of next year.
A total of 2,397 ethnic Vietnamese families and 2,188 Khmer Cham families were living on the river and are expected to relocate to one of six designated areas in Kampong Chhnang city or Boribor, Kampong Tralach and Chol Kiri districts by the end of next year, according to Mr Sovannarith.
Sam Chankea, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said the government should make sure that all infrastructure is completely built before relocating them.
“This is another example of problems occurring when the government is trying to push for a good environment and better conditions, but forgets to devise a clear plan and study its consequences,” Mr Chankea said.
Rhona Smith, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia, last week raised concerns over how authorities have been handling the evictions in a meeting with Mr Kheng, asking the government to ensure that human rights are respected when it relocated hundreds of Cham and Vietnamese minorities.