In January 2018 the Cambodian government approved a plan for a new airport, one of the world’s largest airports by land area, in the Kandal Province . The proposed site, covering 2,600 hectares, is predominantly low-lying agricultural land on the northwestern shore of Boueng Cheung Loung . Announcement of the new airport and associated development sent land prices soaring upwards and within days land for sale signs had been hastily erected. Rice fields and lakeside properties in the area that had been valued at between US$20,000 - 50,000 per hectare before announcement of the new airport began selling for as much as US$100,000 or even US$200,000 per hectare. Villagers were shocked by sudden news of the airport project, along with publication of maps appearing to show the new airport and a massive multi-use development on land they have resided on and near for more than two decades . Their land ownership is disputed by a local 'oknha' or tycoon, Seang Chanheng, who has long laid claim to it. Even provincial authorities have professed uncertainty regarding rights to the land .
On 19th February 2018 over 200 people from four communes gathered at Kandal Provincial Hall to voice their complaints regarding land earmarked for the new airport and seek resolution of the land dispute . A woman said she was one of several villagers who had sold land but been underpaid, selling it for $250 per hectare but receiving a fraction this amount, just $25 or $50. She said they had been intimidated during negotiation over the land, that representatives of the company had slammed the table in front of them, threatened them, locked the door and called the police . On 10th April 2018, 200 people representing 2,000 families gathered outside Kandal Steung district hall requesting intervention in the land dispute over a 400 hectare area, a representative said unidentified companies had cleared and begun marking parts of their communal land . Another protest against the airport and adjoining development was held on 25th April 2018. Hundreds of villagers participated and said that excavators were encroaching on communally held wetlands. A representative for the villagers said that 1,000 families had submitted claims to land affected by the development .
On 4th May 2018 hundreds of villagers from the Ampov Prey commune protested against Chanheng’s company, Heng Development, and about five other companies laying claim to their land. About 1,200 families thumb-printed a document asking district officials for fair compensation for land that is likely to be encompassed in the project, and the loss of their livelihoods from farming and fishing. Many of them had lived on the land since the mid-1990s.  On 6th June 2018 about 800 people representing over 2,000 families gathered at Kandal Provincial Hall to file a complaint against multiple private companies, including Heng Development, operating in their commune, clearing land despite their complaints. The complaint stated that they would escalate protest if their demands are not met, occupying the land and holding rallies at the national level .
Land dispute dating back to 2005
The land dispute pre-dates announcement of the airport and ‘airport city’ project. In 2005 Chenheng's men began bulldozing land occupied by nearly 300 families, whose ownership appeared legitimate on the basis of a 2001 law that people living peacefully on uncontested land for five years can lay claim to it. In 2006-7 the Kandal Provincial Court upheld their claim to the land. Some families were issued with temporary land titles, but not the official land titles that they were assured of. Chanheng's company began clearing the land again in 2009, bulldozing farms and a temple. Company security guards and Military Police fired on villagers who came to protest, wounding three of them. In 2010 ten villagers attempting to block bulldozers from destroying their ripening rice crops were arrested and charged with land grabbing and incitement in connection with the protests, a move decried as harassment by human rights organizations.
As land disputes erupt again in the wake of the planned new airport, with villagers fearing they will be stripped of their land and evicted, human rights groups argued that development on the land should cease until land disputes are resolved. Vann Sopathi, business and human rights coordinator for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said that government and developers should conduct a social and environmental impact assessment of the airport project, and that it should not be permitted to proceed until a mutually acceptable solution is agreed between the company and the affected people .
In late 2018 more than 2,000 families reportedly accepted USD$100 each in compensation for losing 400 hectares of the community lake but others refused the offer saying that the amount was too little for such valuable land. On 6th May 2019 about 400 villagers protested outside the Kandal Stung district hall seeking compensation for communal land they said was sold to house the new Phnom Penh airport, without their knowledge. A representative of the villagers, Phok Phanny, said that 83 hectares of land in the Ampov Prey commune, belonging to a ‘solidarity group’ dating back to the 1980s, had been set aside divided into parts for farming, forest and as a communal lake. A company, named by the district governor in previous reports as Seang Chanheng’s Heng Corporation, also claimed ownership of the land. Villagers said that after the announcement of the new airport in early 2018 the company had sold the land to Overseas Cambodia Investment Corporation (OCIC). Another protesting villager, Yem Yat, said that authorities had demarcated the land in question for communal use in 1984. Yat said: “We are protesting at the district hall and want the district authorities to intervene with the company to find a solution for the people…The land belonged to the people, and did not belong to a businessperson.”
On December 2019 Chairman of OCIC, Pung Kheav Se, said construction of New Phnom Penh Airport was on schedule and could be completed as early as 2013. He said the foundations of the airport were being built, an environmental impact assessment was being conducted and negotiations with people affected by construction were underway. But spokesman of the State Secreatariat of Civil Aviation, Sin Chansereyvutha, said the airport was unlikely to be finished so soon. He said: “We need time to clear the land and lay the foundations and solve any land dispute. As per our schedule, the new airport will be ready by 2024, but it may be delayed until 2025.” In June 2020 Kandal Stung district governor Ouch Saovoeun said the land affected by airport construction in the district totalled 2,000 plots, 2,002 hectares of land. Minister of Land Management, urban Planning and Construction, Chea Sophara, said the government had reached an agreement with 173 families impacted by construction of New Phnom Penh International Airport. Speaking during a visit to the site he said residents and private companies owned 1,673 hectares, stating “Our team has helped to resolve the dispute with the residents at the project site by providing compensation in line with the size of their land…Out team helped 36 families affected by road construction. Eight of those families agreed to accept 5mX20m plots. The other 28 families accepted money.” He said the land was purchased on the principle of not more than USD8 per square metre.
Petition to PM and compensation offer
On 25th August 2020 about 50 villagers from Kandal and Takeo provinces gathered to submit a petition at Prime Minister Hun Sen’s residence in Takhmao City. They said their farmland falls within the planned site of the new Phnom Penh International Airport and the petition requested a bigger payout from the airport developer. A Kandal province resident who had refused compensation, Chhorn Chanthol of Boeng Khyang commune, said the groups demonstrated in front of the premier’s house because a petition submitted earlier in the month had not been answered. Un Soeun, a 68-year old resident from Putsar commune in the Takeo province, said the airport site spans land occupied by 250 people in the Bati district, on the border with Kandal province, including half a hectare of her own farmland. She said OCIC had previously offered between USD3 and USD8 per square metre of land to compensate Bati residents. She and others had refused the payout offer while some people had accepted it. She said, “ask Samdech (Hun Sen) to find a proper solution for the people so then people can use the money to buy land for farming and feed their children.” Another Putsar resident, Kranh Chandy, said she would lose half a hectare of farmland to the airport project and that authorities had blocked a local canal, preventing farmers from accessing water for irrigating their crops. She said: “We don’t have water for farming…We are worried and always thinking [about the future] because I only have that amount of land and I have to raise my children.”
On 14th May 2021 approximately 200 people impacted by the airport set up a protest camp blocking a road leading to the construction site. They said their rice crops had been damaged by developers and that two tractors, three fire trucks, police plus dozens of security guards employed by OCIC had been sent to the disputed land. Long Sopheak, a farmer from Kampong Talong village, said he had not received compensation for destruction of his 1 hectare rice crop. “I was preparing to pump water into the rice field, and at that moment two tractors drove into my field and started destroying it" he said, “I was trying to stop them, but they did not stop until they had completely cleared my rice field.” Since early 2019 all buying and selling of land in around the area had been suspended to facilitate investigation of land title claims and prevent a hike in land prices. A representative of people protesting OCIC’s actions, Kheang Sokmean, said the community had submitted a petition to the Prime Minister but not received a response. A draft of the petition seen by CamboJA called for fair compensation, a speedy settlement and investigation of sub-national officials whom residents accused of violating their ownership rights. Deputy director of rights group Licadho, Am Sam Ath, said all developments need to be transparent and that if developments affect people’s ownership of interests the issues must be fairly addressed. He said, “In this case, when the company has not yet reached a settlement with people but instead encroached on their land, it is illegal and an abuse of people’s rights.”
The protest camp was still in existence of 18th May; 48 families had set up tents to guard their rice fields and prevent OCIC from sending people and machinery again. Sokmean told the Phnom Penh Post that on 14th May protesting villagers surrounded a bulldozer belonging to the construction firm demanding proper compensation for their land and crops. They detained the driver of the bulldozer, who was later briefly detained by local authorities. Kandal Stung district governor Ouch Saovoeun said that in response to the roadblock provincial governor Kong Sophorn invited 13 families affected by construction of the first runway to discuss compensation, but that the villagers did not meet with Sophorn because some of them were too old to travel long distances. Saovoeun said, “We cannot force the villagers to remove their tents from the land until settlement of the impact compensation has been complete.” He said 2,000 land plots were affected by airport construction but so far only 1,000 had been taken. Also, he said the policy mechanism set up by the Ministry of Economy and Finance would provide compensation according to the type and size of land plots.
Journalists under pressure
In July 2021 residents were still demanding compensation at market rates, blocking bulldozers from clearing their farmland and had held a cursing ceremony against developers. News publisher Los Seng, of Los Seng News said he was under pressure over his coverage of land disputes relating to the airport. He had been warned to stop his reporting and informed that a case against him was headed to court. Seng had visited the protest site regularly and made several live broadcasts, including the cursing ceremony. Seng was based in Svay Rieng province. Svay Rieng provincial information officer Ken Chanly told him to stop covering the story after being informed by Kandal authorities that they were unhappy with his reporting. Kandal Stung district police chief Leng Sorun said journalists had made live broadcasts without seeking permission but that since district police had informed the provincial authorities about journalists covering the airport land dispute the reporting had reduced. Seng requested the help of Information Minister Khieu Kanharith, who replied that the Kandal governor had complained and a case was heading to court. The Information Ministry issued a public letter stating that provincial authorities had the right to prosecute journalists if they interfered with official work, “Legally journalists have no right to enter areas banned by authorities, disrupting the legal performance or endangering the operations of authorities, or to disseminate false information, incite against the work of authorities, affect public order and society.”
In September 2021 a reporter for Voice of Democracy (VOD) said he was harassed by authorities while covering the airport land dispute. The Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association )CamboJA) said a second journalist was warned by villagers to stay away because police were threatening to arrest him. Pok Kheuy, an intern at VOD, said, “When I interviewed the people, authorities dressed in civilian clothes took pictures of me and my motorbike…After I finished my interviews, I drove my motorbike back to Phnom Penh and about 5 minutes later, I noticed that two people followed behind me.” He said five uniformed police tried to pull him over but he continued driving. “They still followed and said they were police and asked me to stop and talk to them, but I didn’t stop, and when I refused to stop, they shouted at me calling me ‘thief’” he said. Kheuy said he was frightened for his safety. A villager told CamboJA that authorities had been deployed along the street outside a press conference about the land dispute held by villagers on 4th September.
Roadblock confrontation between villagers and police
On 7th September about 50 villagers attempted to block National Road 2 in protest against development of New Phnom Penh Airport. They were confronted by about 100 security officers. Both sides exchanged words during the standoff which remained non-violent. One of the protesters, Khim Mony, said authorities had arrived early. Trucks were arriving by her house about 4 a.m. while police set up barricades around the area. A hut used as a base for protesters was dismantled. At around 6 a.m. villagers moved towards the road but were outnumbered by police. Nevertheless they reached the road by late morning and left by midday. Mony said two young protesters’ phones were confiscated for filming the confrontation, but their phones were returned later. Ouk Khon, 50 years old and also with land in the disputed area, claimed that his farmland had been bulldozed three times. He said, “The airport should not be built on the tears of the people, and our tears have fallen for three years”.
Hundreds of police set up roadblocks to prevent villagers from inspecting land they had been displaced from. Kampong Talong village representative Khem Maly told Radio Free Asia’s Khmer Service that no injuries were reported in the confrontation between villagers and police but that villagers were being prevented from seeing land that had been seized for airport construction. Villagers had ceased cultivating the land three years ago but economic hardship, due to business shutdowns during the Covid pandemic, had driven them to start farming it again as they were left without other ways to survive. Maly said authorities had already destroyed the year’s crops and were pressurising them to accept a compensation offer of just USD8 per square metre.
Land monitoring officer for CCHR Vann Sophat said that a fair price for the land would fall in the range between USD60 to USD80. Sophat added that OCIC had failed to conduct a proper assessment of their project’s environmental impact or consult Kampong Talong villagers about the development.
Another clash, between about 100 protesters and about 400 police, occurred on 12th September, leaving 13 officers and an unknown number of protesters injured. Kandal provincial police dispersed the protests with teargas and arrested 30 people. The Kandal Provincial Administration alleged that protesters insulted officers while burning tyres and other objects and carried sticks and slingshots intending to fire stones and molotov cocktails at police forces. Khim Somaly, a representative of more than 300 families involved in the land dispute, said before the clash about 200 people were attempting to prevent construction machinery clearing the land but about 400 police erected barricades to prevent them from entering, causing the altercation. Licadho deputy director Am Sam Ath said civil society organisations were concerned about land disputes and the possibility of further arrests and violence, “The clashes have happened on a large scale and have escalated into violence and the detention and arrest of about 30 people on September 12. This is a large number of arrests for people in land disputes.”
Spokesman for human rights group Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), Soeng Sen Karuna, said the organisation had received complaints from residents seeking intervention in land disputes and human rights violations in the area. He added that people cannot be forced to accept under-valued compensation.
Excavators dig up rice fields
Resistance against displacement for the airport continued into 2022. On 4th February around 30 petitioners, representing 84 families, gathered outside government buildings in Phnom Penh, saying they had lost faith in provincial authorities as machines began to dig around their homes. El Oeun said her family’s farmland had been destroyed, “The airport developer has already cleared my land. I farmed on that land every year. Now I have nothing to raise my children with. My husband only works in the rice fields and has no other business. We are illiterate. I have been clearing those fields for my livelihood for many years, but now they have all been cleared. I have nothing for rice farming any more.” Boeng Khyang resident Toun Vannak said, “The hardships of my family and the people in this commune are deteriorating. First, we have no money for our children to study, and also, we have not been able to farm rice. We can’t make money.”
A dozen excavators were digging up rice fields and wetland in Boeng Khyang. Kandal Stung district governor Ouch Saovoeun said dozens of police and military officials were being dispatched to prevent fighting and implement authorities’ instruction to carry out the works. Toun Vannak said that on 10th February about 100 from the joint forces arrived to protect heavy machinery. He said, “We dare not go to the dispute sites because the police forces are everywhere” adding that authorities threatened villagers with arrest, intimidating them and restricting their right to protest .
Deputy Prime Minister Men Sam An intervened in the land dispute in May 2022, issuing a letter to the Kandal governor telling him to look into the situation faced by 121 families contesting the development. She also wrote in her capacity as head of the Ministry of National Assembly-Senate Relations, to which the residents filed a petition stating that 63 hectares of land were disputed .
Nine protesters who were among the group of 34 people arrested in September 2021, accused of violence, specifically being in possession of sticks stones and slingshots, hurling gasoline and burning tyres, were acquitted in November 2022. They were found not guilty by Kandal Provincial Court. Operations director at Licadho, Am Sam Ath, said the rights group had represented five of the defendants and that the prosecution asked for the charges to be dropped because they were not involved in the alleged crimes. Court spokesperson So Sarin confirmed that they had been charged with intentional violence with aggravating circumstances, incitement to cause felony and obstruction of public officers under aggravating circumstances. The nine acquitted people accepted compensation offered by the government .
Houses marked and demolition fears
The number of villagers involved in the land dispute increased in November 2022. About 200 villagers gathered at Kandal City Hall demanding to know if they would be joining the 300 families being displaced for the airport. Workers whom they recognised as airport staff and from local authorities spray painted red marks on dozens of homes. CamboJA reporters visited and saw numbers sprayed on about 90 per cent of houses alongside the 94 canal, located about 5km form the airport site. Seng Sokry, 39, said, “I thought that the airport was far from here and nothing would affect me but now they are telling me to move. I was told to relocate to another place, but they did not tell me where. I don’t want to move to another place; here I can fish for a living.” Deputy provincial governor, Nouv Peng Chantara, said the marks were a means to track the number of people living there and had nothing to do with the airport .
In January 2023 residents affected by the airport development said company workers instructed them to dismantle sheds housing animals, causing anxiety that their land might be cleared. Uong Sim of Kandork commune, who had lived on her land for over 20 years, said, “We are very worried because we see them doing this, we are afraid they will come to dismantle [our houses] one day. We have a mountain of concerns. Whenever we go to find [work], we only think about our homes, we are afraid they will be demolished.” She added that representatives of 460 families living around the airport project had gathered at the Kandal provincial administration on 27th December 2022 requesting land titles but had received no response .