Villagers Turn to Prayer

May Titthara / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
Prak Thorn surrounded by symbols to keep the spirits and souls happy at his house near the Poy Jupon pagoda. KT/May Titthara

In the dark of the night, Prak Thorn pointed a flashlight to the Poy Jupon pagoda, the last standing pagoda on the land Chinese developer Union Development Group (UDG) was clearing to build resorts.
The company has evicted more than 1,000 families from the coastal village in Koh Kong province, but Mr. Thorn is one of the few defiant ones who has chosen to reject the lucrative compensation and remain.
However, he admits that his resilience is waning and he is losing hope in his ability to fend off developers like UDG who insist that families, many who have lived there for generations, leave so they can build a $3.8 billion tourism complex.
“Because I’ve lost faith in the government, I have tried doing good deeds and praying to the spirits and complaining to the spirits in the pagoda, the spirits at sea, the souls who protect the pagoda, to ask Prime Minister Hun Sen to clear six hectares of land for us to live so that we can care for the pagoda,” he told Khmer Times.
“The souls even came in my dream and told us not to leave this land and to take care of the pagoda.”
With a flashlight in one hand and a walking stick in the other, the elderly Mr. Thorn said he would plead with the premier to give villagers a parcel of land to live on and preserve what little was left of their cultural heritage there.
“Although the authorities have forced the monks to leave the pagoda, I will still stay here to take care of it, to clean the school and the pagoda,” he alleged,  adding that it was the district governor, provincial governor and the commune chief who forced the monks out of the pagoda back in 2012.
As many as 88 families have returned to their homes despite accepting the compensation offered by UDG as they all claim they were not given the full amount that was initially offered.
In 2008, UDG announced that each household would be given 5,000 square meters of land for them to rebuild their homes along with two hectares of farmland in a new village which would be equipped with schools, temples, electricity, roads and wells.
A local media report from May added that villagers who accepted the compensation package were also entitled to $30 per lost fruit tree and between $3,000 and $20,000 based on the size of their current homes.
“I lived in the new location for five years and it was very difficult. The houses provided were low quality as were the jobs there. My family couldn’t endure it very much longer. So in July, we decided to move back here to our old house,” 50-year-old Pin Yun said.
Standing under a banner prominently displayed in front of his home which read “Ban land clearing,” Mr. Yun said the company did not comply with the terms of the compensation package offered after he relocated his family there in 2012. He added that authorities there also did not stop him when he decided to move back into his old home.
However, he said he was concerned that the Chinese company could return and hurt him and his family, like they did five years ago.
“If the Chinese company comes here to clear our land, the best we can do is to fight them off,” he said.
Thirty-nine-year-old Ses Sengheang also insisted that she would go down fighting for the right of the community to remain on the land which they’ve inhabited for decades. Ms. Sengheang was one of the five other families who did not accept UDG’s compensation package as she believed that the land was so valuable, she could not put a price on it.
“This land is like our gold, our diamonds,” she said when government officials came to her home and tried to convince her that the land had no monetary value.
“In November this year, General Kun Kim and Environment Minister Say Samal came to my home. Mr. Kun Kim said this land had no value. I told him that if it has no value, why are they trying to take away our land?
“However, Mr. Say Samal said he recognized our plight and he said he would help us solve our problem,” she added.
UDG received a 99-year land concession from the government in 2008 to develop the 36,000 hectare parcel of land in Koh Kong province’s Botum Sakor and Kiri Sakor districts for the purpose of trade and tourism resorts.
In 2011, the government handed over an additional 9,100 hectare land concession which in turn affected 1,963 families.
According to a 97-page report by the Cambodia Human Rights Task Force released last year, corruption and impunity were rife in UDG’s allocation of compensation to the villagers. The report said that villagers who participated in protests were threatened with a reduced compensation sum, while pay-offs to officials were commonplace.
Ngou Tieng Lung, a UDG representative, could not be reached for a comment.
Seoung Sen Karona, a senior human rights investigator for Adhoc who went along with Cambodian Human Rights Action Coalition to investigate the situation, said that many of those who returned to their old homes did so due to the protracted and unclear relocation.
“The company did not comply with their contracts to the citizens so they were having difficulties living in the new place and because it’s not suited to them, they returned to their old place,” he said.
“For those who have not accepted the compensation, they’ve lost faith in the government officials from the local to national levels who have made them empty promises. They’ve turned to abstract spirituality to pray that officials find a solution for them,” he added.
Environment Ministry spokesperson Sao Sopheap said the ministry was looking into the villagers’ complaints, but added that it was a difficult situation as those who have accepted the developer’s compensation should not return to the land they agreed to vacate.
“They have already accepted the compensation and returning to their old homes is a complicated problem and makes it more difficult to solve. The people who have not agreed to accept the compensation make things even more complicated,” he said.
Cambodians have in recent months grown weary of land deals with large developers after many were cheated out of compensation deals. Most recently, many residents of the iconic White Building in Phnom Penh opted to reluctantly leave their homes in favor of compensation for fear that they would end up like the Borei Keila community, who continue to protest.
In 2003, the government gave more than 14 hectares of land in Borei Keila to Phanimex, which agreed to construct 10 buildings for the more than 1,700 families being relocated, but the company has only built eight, resulting in protests.
Phanimex has rejected the accusations and stressed that development in Borei Keila was done in accordance with the desires of 1,261 families and housing had been built for them.
Urban land rights group Sahmakum Teang Tnaut in a recent report said that only 35 percent of promised developments which involved evictions have been completed, with the remaining 65 percent being either partially constructed, underdeveloped or significantly altered from original plans.
However Mr. Thorn, like many other families who have returned to the coastal village in Koh Kong province, has vowed to remain and protect it at any cost.
“We no longer have monks but we still have the Buddha,” Mr. Thorn said with tears in his eyes.
“So I bring food offerings to the Buddha. I have never missed a single day since 2012. I dedicate it to all 24 Buddhas and to the hundreds of spirits and souls who protect the pagoda in the hope that they keep the citizens here safe.”

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