Ethnic minority villagers in eastern Cambodia are protesting over the operations of a Chinese mining company they say have intruded on their ancestral lands while exploring for bauxite deposits in the region.
Residents of Pon Raeng village and its two neighboring villages in Mondulkiri province's Dak Dam commune say they submitted a petition recently to Cambodia International Investment Development Group (CIIDG), the Chinese company they hold responsible for the intrusion.
CIIDG is a partner in a joint venture with Pheapimex, an ethnic-Chinese owned Cambodian conglomerate with close ties to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The villagers, who are members of the Phnong ethnic minority, have demanded that the company hold rituals to appease what they believe to be the spirits of their ancestors before continuing digging near their graveyards and “sacred” forests.
Gnet Vandy, acting representative for the residents of the three villages, said he had delivered the petition to the Chinese company.
“The people demand that [the company halt digging on the land]. They also demand that the company holds a complete ritual ceremony to honor their spirits,” he said.
“If they cannot meet those demands, the company must stop their digging activities.”
Sam Vanny, the officer of Dak Dam commune who has been mediating between the two parties, confirmed that the villagers had delivered their demands to CIIDG.
“I know the villagers have demanded that the company hold the ritual, but I don’t know how much it will cost,” he said.
He added that he was unsure of when the villagers had first made their demands to CIIDG.
A representative of CIIDG, Sann Di, said he had submitted the villagers’ demands to his superiors, but had received no response.
“I have reminded [the management] that they must resolve this problem for the people as soon as possible,” he said.
He added that he would follow up later to see if the company’s management had come to any conclusions about how to proceed.
In the meantime, CIIDG has continued its exploration for bauxite, causing concern among the villagers.
Up to 80 percent of Mondulkiri’s population is made up of tribal minorities, making ritual and tradition very important in the area.
In recent years the province’s valuable minerals have attracted numerous companies, resulting in growing deforestation and mining.
Chinese mining companies seeking bauxite deposits in Southeast Asian countries have been met by a number of protests from local communities, most notably in Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
In October, Vietnam's lawmakers joined ranks with environmentalists and others in calling for a review of bauxite mine operations in the country, despite a crackdown on industry critics.
The representatives called on the government to scale back or suspend bauxite mining in the Central Highlands, arguing that harmful side effects and potential dangers would outweigh any profits exploration might bring.
Experts have said that Vietnamese officials and members of the public have felt bolstered in their opposition to the mining due to the involvement of Chinese companies they see as stealing jobs and resources.
Bauxite mining drew national attention in 2010 when Vietnamese war hero Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap wrote an open letter to the government expressing his opposition. Giap’s letter unleashed a flood of criticism from scientists, activists, and legislators concerned with the potential environmental impact of the mines.
Critics collected thousands of signatures from Vietnamese intellectuals at home and overseas to protest the mines in Central Highlands.
In response to the opposition, the Communist Party began to crack down on activists and is suspected of hacking into and disabling several opposition websites from both inside and outside of Vietnam.
CIIDG’s exploration of bauxite in Mondulkiri province is just one example of how China’s growing presence in Cambodia is drawing the ire of local residents.
In 2008, the Cambodian government granted a Mondulkiri forest concession of 200,000 hectares—20 times the legal limit—acquired secretly by Pheapimex, CIIDG's joint venture partner.
Pheapimex formed a joint venture with China’s Wuzhishan plantation firm to exploit the region, displacing indigenous minority people who rely on the forests for their traditional livelihoods.
Chinese development firm Shukaku Inc. is currently at the center of controversy surrounding the construction of a luxury residential complex that has displaced nearly 3,000 families and has left 1,500 more at risk of eviction around Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak Lake.
Residents have resisted the evictions for years, maintaining that the government compensation packages are too low, but have been warned that they will face legal action if they do not leave the land.
Meanwhile, workers’ rights are often sidestepped in Chinese-invested factories, especially in the textile industry, according to rights groups.
Hundreds of thousands of workers—the majority of whom are women—are employed in Cambodia’s textile industry, which generates annual revenue of more than U.S. $1 billion.
They have described an atmosphere in which they are constantly pressed into unpaid overtime, with too many financial worries and too little spare time to cause trouble for management. Unauthorized deductions from pay-packets are common, and paid sick leave is rare.
Reported by Sok Ratha for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.