Source: Khmer Times | Tue, 22 March 2016, by Jonathan Cox and Ven Rathavong
After getting the rights to develop Koh Rong island in 2008, the Royal Group started clearing land last year in preparation for the construction of its luxury Royal Sands resort.
Villagers, business owners and small landholders on the island off the coast of Preah Sihanouk province have been caught in limbo, unsure of whether their land still belongs to them.
That uncertainty may end soon. The provincial government has established a working group to decide which land belongs to village residents.
Koh Rong’s deputy commune chief Chhoeun Chantha told Khmer Times that the working group is using a simple, three-step criteria to determine which villagers will get to keep their land and which will be evicted.
“People can get a land title if they have lived there since before 2008, now occupy land and a house or have a permanent home there,” he said.
This is good news for long-time residents of the island, but some of the roughly 600 families affected are still concerned.
“I’ve owned land there since 1995, but I’m worried about losing it,” said Ngen Rin, a Preah Sihanouk province police officer who owns land on Koh Rong, but lives on the mainland. “I’m waiting for the decision from the provincial government.”
Mr. Chantha said it is up to the working group to decide whether or not to award land to people who do not meet the working group’s criteria. This has left some villagers uncertain about their future on the island.
“We don’t know where the company’s land ends and the villagers’ land begins,” said Sok Sokhom, director of the Cambodian National Research Organization.
Yun Min, the provincial governor, said he is unsure of when the working group will release its decision on land ownership.
The working group’s study is unfinished, but the Royal Group is already using heavy machinery to clear large swathes of jungle. The owner, millionaire tycoon Kith Meng, has an ambitious plan to tame Koh Rong that includes hotels, roads, shopping centers, piers and even an international airport. The groundbreaking ceremony for the resort’s centerpiece – a five-star, 148-room hotel – took place last December.
The project has received mixed reactions, with some people worrying about the destruction of farmland and the loss of a pristine natural coastline, while others say the resort would be an economic boon for the area. So far, no families have been evicted and no land has been seized, but tensions are high between villagers and the company.
Several villagers gathered to protest against the construction of a road near Koh Tuich village last year and there have been threats of further protests.
Meanwhile, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court is still hearing a suit brought against a husband and wife in 2012 by the Royal Group, which accused them of trespassing on its property.
“The company should stop suing these people in court,” said Mr. Sokhom. The Royal Group could not be reached for comment on the case.
At the inauguration of the new hotel’s construction site, Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Sar Kheng told villagers “not to worry about the development project,” saying it was being built “for them, not to make trouble.” Mr. Sokhom said villagers are still unsure if Mr. Kheng’s promises will hold true.
“The company should build according to its promise to the government [to leave land belonging to villagers],” Mr. Sokhom said. “The people are living there legally.”