Grumblings of Disquiet on Koh Rong Sanloem Over Sudden Evictions

4 min read
Local authorities have spray-painted eviction dates on properties on Koh Rong Sanloem in the last month. (Supplied)
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Cambodian authorities are calling the popular beach resorts on major tourist attraction Koh Rong Sanloem island “illegal” and claiming there are only “one or two” holdouts left after a sudden eviction notice.

One deadline has just passed and there remains less than a week for another, but boats were still ferrying hundreds of tourists to the island as normal on Friday as workers and a bungalow owner spoke of the grumblings of protest.

Nearly all of the 2,400-hectare island has been handed over to two companies through the state’s foreign investment arm Council for Development of Cambodia, according to an official document supplied by locals.

Resorts and other businesses along the island’s pristine beaches were visited by officials last month and handed a January 31 deadline to leave, and visited again this week with a new deadline of under a week, they said.

Long Dimanche, deputy governor of Preah Sihanouk province, said those businesses were “illegal,” and plans had been in the works for years to hand the island over to a private developer.

“We’ve seen the illegal occupations,” Dimanche said. “We have informed them many times.”

The island belonged to the state, and officials had issued warnings over several months, he said.

“The ministries of land management and environment and the CDC have gone down to educate and disseminate, and later the ones who had yet to leave, we start to remove,” Dimanche said. He added that most businesses had already agreed to leave, and there were only “one or two” dissenters.

“This is the time to organize properly, and we make the people who are illegal be legal by finding a new location,” he said, adding that officials would help businesses relocate. “Renters can continue to rent with their landlords in a new location.”

He said the current evictions related to about 1,000 hectares handed to “a company” in 2008.

A September 2021 letter from the provincial administration listed two companies: Emario Shonan Marine Corporation, which claims 1,124 hectares; and Koh Rong Sanloem Resort, with 1,066 hectares. The letter says both contracts date back to 2008.

Koh Rong Sanloem has become famed as one of Cambodia’s two primary beach destinations — the quieter counterpart to nearby Koh Rong island, which is being developed by influential tycoon Kith Meng.

The owner of Sky Beach Resort said he had run his business since 2018, and his first warning came in early January when officials came and brought him the September 2021 letter.

Until then, “we did not receive any warning letter. They just came and told us to leave,” he said, declining to be named saying he feared repercussions from authorities.

The officials also spray-painted his property in red: “Remove January 31.”

The officials then returned on Thursday and painted a second line: “Remove before February 9.”

The main Saracen Bay area is littered with the red spray-painted letters, on water tanks, resort entrances, wooden bungalows and steps leading up to accommodations.

He said he had only dismantled one of his 10 bungalows. He would have the authorities do the rest, he said.

“I’ve been watching other resorts because they want to protest against the company, but there’s no company to talk to and we don’t know which company we can discuss this with,” he said.

This week his landlord also informed him of the evictions. “Nobody has my back. The other resorts might have their own lawyers, but I don’t,” he said.

On Friday, guests had begun making cancellations, and the officials again visited, he said.

But the pressure appears to have been unevenly applied, with several businesses reached by phone saying they had not been visited by officials.

Commune police officer Nou Meng Makiny said his side of the island — area 23 — would be “OK.”

Boat operators servicing the route said they had only rumors to go off and were filled with uncertainty.

Around 1,000 tourists were still getting ferried to the island every day, said Chin Chetra, a staff member at boat operator CTVC.

Khiev Sokun, a salesman for another ferry operator, Buva Sea Cambodia, said his company alone took around 100 guests to the island.

The island was increasingly popular for domestic tourists, especially for those from within the province, Sokun said.

The island was beautiful and affordable for tourists, but he would need to see how it looks after the evictions were finished, he said, anticipating a steep drop in business.

“If the company doesn’t protest, we don’t know what to do because we are just staff and work for salary,” Sokun added.

Som Sokdaramonuerika, Som Sokdararikio, Som Somalika are the directors of Emario Shonan Marine, which lists the Emario Rong Sanlem Island Resort as one of its projects on its website. But it says the project is 2,400 hectares, which is the entire island.

The company was previously headed by Masako Asakura, who is the mother of the three Emario directors. She is a Cambodia-born Japanese businessperson, who also runs a business consultancy service called Alpha International Cooperation.

The three children also received land in the fast-filling Boeng Tamok lake in Phnom Penh.

The second company, Koh Rong Sanloem Island Resort, has no web presence but is listed on the Commerce Ministry business registry. The current director is Li Peishing, while Robin Tom Holdsworth is a former director of the business and the current chairman of Koh Smach Island Resort Developments, which is linked to the late Cambodian businessman Rithy Samnang.

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