SIHANOUKVILLE (Khmer Times) – Residents of Koh Rong Island, off the coast of Sihanoukville, have this week called on government officials, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, to review what they are labelling “abusive activities” by the Royal Group (RG) conglomerate.
RG, chaired by tycoon Kith Meng, is proceeding with development plans for the island that are widely hoped to transform it into one of Southeast Asia’s most luxurious and exclusive resorts.
But construction, which has dramatically accelerated in recent weeks, has now begun to have a negative impact on the lives of locals – which many initially warned was inevitable, residents have said.
RG’s efforts to transform the island into an expansive resort require a vast amount of development and the construction of brand new infrastructure, say local business-owners.
“The plans are ambitious, but I just don’t see how they can carry them out without having a huge impact on people living here,” one foreign business-owner told Khmer Times recently.
Kith Meng’s ambitious planning maps, seen by Khmer Times, include new roads, piers and even an international airport that could service hotels, resorts, shopping centres and golf courses.
The plans also came, however, with an initial pledge to protect the majority of Koh Rong’s lush rainforest and have as little impact as possible on the thousands of families who live on the island.
In early July, former governor of Preah Sihanouk, Chhit Sokhon, called for a temporary halt to the construction of a new RG road, due to escalating protests.
Mr. Sokhon emphasised that while RG had a legal right to develop the island – in 2008 the government granted them a 99-year concession to do so – they also had a legal and moral obligation to protect the rights of people living there.
The protection of the rights of citizens already living on land granted in Economic Land Concessions (ELCs) is enshrined in Cambodian law.
Construction and Destruction
Recent weeks have painted an unkind picture of Royal Group’s development efforts so far.
Construction crews and machinery, which have been photographed clearing large amounts of forest this week, have been accused of destroying vital farming sites and crops, including trees that yield cashew, jack-fruit, coconut and mangoes.
One village leader alleged that the destruction in recent weeks could affect the livelihoods of more than 100 families, who have lived on the island since 1995 in fishing or small farming communities.
Villagers have said such destruction of their livelihood is illegal and government authorities should intervene and monitor the situation. Local groups are preparing petitions and paperwork to file with provincial and national authorities, sources told Khmer Times this week.
Breakdowns in communication and a bittering of the relationship between local residents and RG have seen the rise of protest groups on the island, who recently halted the construction of a road and briefly attracted national media coverage.
“Royal Group don’t communicate with us anymore,” a prominent Koh Rong resident told Khmer Times. “They come in and do their work, take what they want, but there is no communication,” he continued.
Further protests, confrontation and even violence are likely if resolutions and agreements cannot be attained, island residents say. “Villagers here, they will continue to fight back however they can,” one island resident said.
Khmer Times was unable to obtain comment from Royal Group or Kith Meng, but in an interview with Radio Free Asia last week a spokesperson for the corporation denied that their crews had destroyed crops or farming areas, while reiterating that the conglomerate had the legal right to develop the land.
Meanwhile, island residents – supported by human rights advocates and environmental campaigners – continue to argue that RG’s development plans require more official oversight and supervision.