By Mech Dara and Danielle Keeton-Olsen
Buon and Bit Traing communes, Preah Sihanouk

After living for four or five months on the roadside next to Wat O’Tres, Tit Kry said he was starting to give up on getting back his piece of land in Bit Traing commune’s Koki village.

But Kry hadn’t given up on the ruling party.

“I still love them because of their good leadership,” he said, referring to Prime Minister Hun Sen by his honorific samdech. “Even if they do not solve this issue I still love the party.”

But when his wife, Mak Vanna, returned from running errands to their current home — a corrugated metal roof over a wooden bed and karaoke speaker, only protected from rain and dust by tarps — she expressed that the land conflict left her frustrated.

When asked who she’ll vote for on June 5, she paused. “I cannot decide yet whether Candlelight or CPP.”

She said life was difficult before the family lost their land, but now she was in a worse condition.

“We are unsatisfied. We are not living in happiness or comfort.”

Preah Sihanouk’s fastest-changing communes — Sihanoukville’s Buon and Prey Nob’s Bit Traing — are scattered with shacks and trailer homes after land disputes uprooted communities. After years of disputes, including some emerging as recently as this year, residents of Buon and Bit Traing question whether their votes can put an end to their land conflicts or homelessness.

On the edge of Sihanoukville city, dozens of skyscrapers have risen out of real or perceived demand from Chinese investors — with some of the new buildings now housing online companies allegedly operating online gambling and cryptocurrency-based scam businesses. In neighboring Bit Traing commune, whose coastal land has been locked up by elite ownership, violent conflicts have emerged as longtime residents compete with opaque but powerful owners.

Kry and Vanna said they’ve been sleeping in the shack they set up next to Wat O’Tres since they were ousted by a company. They said they didn’t know the company’s name but called the area 012, a piece of land in Bit Traing commune’s Koki village. Kry added that some 100 families who had lived there were now spread throughout the province, with only about 20 families receiving compensation from the company.

Kry showed reporters his land certificate with the commune office, including scans of his and Vanna’s ID cards and a photo of them in front of their small stilted house. But Kry said he had yet to protest the issue with the company and village, instead choosing to wait until after the election.

“After the election they said they would solve the problem,” he said. “I have very little hope.”

“Maybe I’ll go to the province” after the election, Kry continued. “If the province cannot find [a solution], it’s the end.”

Vanna, his wife, described the conditions as unbearable, saying they could not sleep at night. The family was now based on a road where cement trucks barrel toward the notorious scam-linked Chinatown area or dump trucks haul gravel and sand to Bit Traing’s massive land clearings. She worries about traffic accidents, she added.

If they’re not given a solution, Vanna suggested that violent protest may be an option, telling reporters she was not afraid.

“What can we do?” she asked. “Just live like this, live with fate? … We lost everything.”

Not everyone uprooted by a Preah Sihanouk land dispute is upset, thanks to the settlement they’ve received. Around a year after the last commune election in 2017, Soeung Ly, 30, was pushed out of her home in the O’Tres Beach area in Buon commune, but she was compensated enough to buy a new piece of land in Bit Traing commune for about $10,000.

Ly said she would vote again for the current commune chief, and she hoped he would improve the roads leading to her house.

“Living there [on O’Tres Beach] was near the road so I could easily do business, but now here it is far and deep [into the village] so it is difficult to do business since there are not many people coming around here.”

But she said she would vote for the ruling party for its overall promotion of peace and stability, as seen from posters on government offices and abandoned buildings throughout the province.

“For the politics, I do not know much. Before, I voted CPP, and this year will vote CPP, because we vote for the one who brings us peace and development,” she said.

Land in Preah Sihanouk province's Bit Traing commune on May 29, 2022. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)
Land in Preah Sihanouk province’s Bit Traing commune on May 29, 2022. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)

100% Confidence

The ruling party chiefs in both Buon and Bit Traing communes felt their reelection was secured, brushing aside land disputes as conflicts with people who are outsiders to the province. 

Both communes went to the opposition CNRP in 2017 until the party was dissolved and all of the party’s commune chiefs were expelled from office. The only other commune that went toward the opposition in 2017 was Sihanoukville’s Muoy commune. 

Bit Traing commune chief Meach Chan said he thinks his party has a “100%” chance of winning the local election because he and other CPP officials responded quickly to concerns like document processing and infrastructure repairs. 

“First, related to the leadership at the local [level] in the past, the CPP’s principle has been that all officials must respond to [people’s] concerns like floods and other infrastructure and road, and second to process documents on time for them without charging,” he said. 

Chan claimed that most of the people involved in land disputes were from other provinces, and so not voting in his jurisdiction and not a threat to the CPP’s candidacy. He noted that one of the main developers of the land, Fu Hai, had long-standing claims to the land, although the company was only granted 51 hectares in sub-decrees last August. 

“They came to live on the land of Fu Hai that already had titles since 1995 and 1996, but the company has a plan to exchange [land] for the people, so this is not a serious impact on this election,” he said.

Buon commune chief Seng Nim also expressed confidence in winning the upcoming election: “We have worked hard in development and serving [people] in all kinds of ways, and people are joining us in a landslide.” 

Nim said the land disputes in Buon commune had all been solved, claiming that everyone who had disputes had received land in exchange or titles. He also dismissed concerns about crime coinciding with the growth of online gambling and scam companies in his commune, such as finding bodies in undeveloped land, saying it had nothing to do with Cambodian voters. 

“Many people in Buon commune support us because they have seen development that for the past three years [happening] like magic,” he said. “A majority congratulate the government at the provincial, district and commune [levels] for their achievement.”

Delegating From the Next Commune Over

At the end of a dirt road into Bit Traing commune’s Koki village, an excavator marks the start of sporadic land development that stretches up the hill.

In 2019 and 2020, pieces of Koki village have been partitioned off to a company called Fu Hai and Lao Annie, though the land clearing seems to extend beyond the areas granted in sub-decrees.

Around the corner from the base of the sprawling excavation, Im Sary, the wife of the deputy village chief in Buon commune’s Village 1, kept a small canteen restaurant and store.

Sary noticed that the response to land-dwellers has been different based on whether a family is registered as being from Preah Sihanouk, and it’s only the wealthy who have been able to change their registered home province after moving there.

“People who come from other provinces do not have documents [from Preah Sihanouk], and they cannot [get a land exchange],” she said. 

Sary claimed that few people resisted the company when it encroached on their land because its officers threatened to take away their compensation: If residents cooperated without protest, they could get $4,000 from the company, but otherwise they’d just receive packs of instant noodles and soy sauce in compensation.

When asked if village-level officials like her husband could intervene in disputes like that with Fu Hai, Sary said that village officials are often kept out of big development projects. 

“How can we help them since we also sometimes cannot help ourselves,” she said. “When they point their finger anywhere, that place will be destroyed. We do not know [anything] because we live under their order.”

Sary said land disputes had long been a challenge in the two neighboring communes of Buon and Bit Traing, noting that she and her husband were evicted from land near the online scam complex colloquially called Chinatown.

Now the land in Bit Traing is titled to the family, but her husband still works as a deputy village chief in the neighboring district.

Though her family is aligned with the ruling party, Sary predicts the party’s support will wane due to officials’ failure to help victims of land disputes.

“There are some people who are disappointed with the CPP because they do not see any leaders and powerful people come to check on the people when they were crying out for help,” she said. “The land issues are biggest in our commune.”

“People are unhappy and they are not in the mood to do business since they do not know when and whether they will be evicted or [their homes] demolished,” she said. “They do not want to buy new stuff for their homes or renovate their homes because [the future] is uncertain.”

From what Sary has heard, the biggest disappointment was the change in governor in 2019, when Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered Kuoch Chamroeun to lead the province. While his predecessor had sometimes intervened in land cases, Chamroeun had developed a reputation of prioritizing the wants of high-ranking officials and business owners, she said. Sary expected views of him would have an effect on the polls: “Wait and see the result. You will know it.”

“The CPP will lose some votes because people have cried their tears,” she said with an abrupt laugh. “To earn back [votes], they have to build houses for the people to live in so that people are happy with [the resolution] and they come back.”

She continued: “The rich come to live here while the poor live far away from here like in the jungle. … The poor cannot live here because they have nothing.”

Though almost 30 years have passed since she lost her own land, Sary notes that she still feels bitter over the experience.

“How could we win over them!” she exclaimed of those in power. “When I am reminded about the land, I regret losing the land from which they kicked me out. … They did everything they could to make us leave that place.”

The kitchen inside Im Sary's restaurant, where Chinatown is visible in the background, in Preah Sihanouk province's Bit Traing commune on May 29, 2022. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)
The kitchen inside Im Sary’s restaurant, where Chinatown is visible in the background, in Preah Sihanouk province’s Bit Traing commune on May 29, 2022. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)

Voters Living Rough

Im Chantha, a man in his 40s, was living out of a trailer packed with their things, parked along a newly paved road around the corner from Koki village. Three years ago he had bought a large plot of land, 15-by-143 meters to settle on, but a company whose name he said he didn’t know kicked the couple out. For three months, they were sleeping just off a Bit Traing commune road where construction trucks roar past.

After losing his $30,000 investment, he was now earning a small amount of money, selling sausages his wife prepared and he cooked on a charcoal grill for 1,000 riel per skewer.

The company — like Kry, he claimed not to know the name — had offered him a new piece of land, 5-by-20 meters in area. But when they evicted him, he had to pay to dismantle his original home in two to three days, hardly enough time to do so, he said.

Chantha said this was unfair, as he had land recognition from the commune, and added that they would stay on the road while they’re waiting for a new solution from local authorities and the company.

“We cannot demand more, and we have pleaded to them many times to get more compensation and they did not agree,” he said. “The ones who did not agree to move, [the company] demolished [their homes], so we do not want to bother with the company.”

Though he has lived in Preah Sihanouk for 12 years, Chantha was still considered a resident of Kampot province. He had not changed his residency but he would prefer to vote in Sihanoukville because he would need to spend around 100,000 riel, or $25, to travel to vote. 

Even if he decides to cast his ballot, he was not sure what party would receive his support. 

“It is very hard to make this decision to select between these two parties, and I’m afraid they are not different from each other,” Chantha said. “In the past, we have voted for [the CPP], and if we change, we are concerned it would make the situation get even worse. I also believe that because of the land issues, it has caused many people to lose their faith in the CPP.”

At the same time that he and other former residents had grown tired of the company, Chantha was also exhausted by local officials, he said, and he thought most others in the province were as well.

“The situation in Preah Sihanouk has gotten worse in the last three years because of land disputes,” he said. “Everyone is discouraged and disappointed, including myself.”


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