The army created a new platoon on Monday to guard an area near the Areng Valley in Koh Kong province, where hundreds of ethnic minority residents have fiercely resisted plans by a Chinese company to build a hydropower dam that would flood their ancestral lands.
The creation of the 30-soldier platoon comes a day before local officials are scheduled to meet the approximately 1,500 villagers who will be affected by the 108-MW Stung Chhay Areng dam and present a relocation plan to them.
“We created a platoon this morning in Thma Baing district, which is around 10 km from the Areng Valley, in order to protect people’s safety and security,” said Brigadier General Yon Min, the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces commander for Koh Kong province.
“We created it to protect people and protect the government,” he added.
However, rights workers and Chong minority representatives said they feared the new influx of soldiers would intimidate local residents into stopping their protests.
“Creating a platoon to protect people’s security and safety, this is just a pretext,” said In Kongchet, provincial coordinator for rights group Licadho. “Why do they create it now? These villagers are living peacefully.”
According to Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, head of the NGO Mother Nature, which works with villagers in the Areng Valley, the new platoon would effectively double the number of military personnel stationed in Thma Baing district.
He said the platoon’s arrival a day before the meeting on compensation was “too much of a coincidence.”
“It’s all about intimidation,” he said.
Brig. Gen. Min dismissed the rights workers’ claims, and emphasized that the soldiers were only there for the protection of Areng Valley residents.
“We don’t care if they are saying something,” he said.
At today’s meeting, the government’s new working group on the dam—which includes national- and provincial-level energy officials as well as representatives of Chinese company Sinohydro—will show villagers plans of the dam relocation site.
Although the government has said it would build new homes for each family on 1,000-square-meter plots, giving them five hectares of farmland each, the families still oppose the dam, which would flood their ancestral lands, sacred forests and burial sites. Environmental groups say the dam would also disrupt the fragile ecosystem of the valley’s woodlands, and harm fish migration and breeding.
Since March, around 15 Chong villagers who stand to lose their homes to the dam have been standing guard near the roadside in shifts, hoping to block a group of Chinese engineers brought in by Sinohydro to survey the site. They have successfully blocked the road at least twice, and so far the engineers have not managed to complete their work at the dam.
Ven Vorn, one of the villagers manning the roadblock, said he and his compatriots felt that the new platoon was an attempt to intimidate them into abandoning their advocacy.
“I think this new platoon was created to protect the Chinese company behind the hydropower dam, and it is intimidating the advocacy of villagers,” he said.
He insisted, however, that they would not stand down—and might even consider expanding their initiative to block the incoming soldiers as well.
“I haven’t yet planned to create a roadblock against the soldiers, but we will still struggle to ban the Chinese staff who want to study the impact of the dam,” Mr. Vorn said.
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