New Phnom Penh Airport land dispute enters fifth year

Disputes over land acquisition for New Phnom Penh Airport date back to 2018 when 2,600 hectares, in the Kandal Province, were allocated for the project. With an estimated cost of US$1.5 billion the development was described as one of the world’s largest airports by land area with an adjoining ‘Airport City’. The site is predominantly agricultural land and villagers were shocked by sudden news of the airport and the prospect of losing homes, land and livelihoods from farming and fishing. A series of protests between February and June 2018 involved hundreds of people, representing about 2,000 families, complaining of low compensation offers, intimidation during negotiations over land and encroachment onto communally held wetlands. By December 2019 foundations for the airport were being laid.

Protest continued into 2020. In June the Kandal Stung district governor said 2,000 plots of land were affected by airport construction and in August villagers from the Kandal and Takeo provinces whose farmland fell within the planned site petitioned the Prime Minister requesting a bigger payout from the airport developer. By May 2021 construction of New Phnom Penh Airport was reported to be 40% complete, with the terminal hall, airfield and 100 metre high control tower already in place. A State Secretariat of Aviation (SSCA) spokesperson said, “We are aware that the pandemic has disrupted many projects and the economy, but the construction of the airport in Kandal Province and other airport projects in the country have been on schedule.” The map below, dated 17th July 2021, shows satellite imagery of part of the airport site and communes impacted by land acquisition including Ampov Prey, Boeng Khyang and Kandork.

New Phnom Penh Airport construction site, satellite imagery 17th July 2021

The land dispute escalated on 14th May 2021 when approximately 200 people who said their rice crops had been destroyed set up a protest camp blocking a road to the construction site. They set up tents and a few days later several of them surrounded a bulldozer and demanded proper compensation for their land and crops. Residents were still blocking bulldozers from clearing farmland in July and authorities warned journalists against covering the land dispute. 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 but the standoff remained non-violent. Then police set up roadblocks to prevent villagers from inspecting land they had been displaced from. A representative of Kampong Talong village (shown to the south of the map) said villagers were being prevented from seeing land that had been seized for airport construction. They 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 had been left without other ways to survive.

On 12th September 2021 a ‘clash’ between about 100 protesters and about 400 police left 13 officers and an unknown number of protesters injured. Kandal provincial police dispersed the protests with teargas and about 30 people were arrested and detained. Nine of the arrested people were accused of violence – specifically being in possession of sticks stones and slingshots, hurling gasoline and burning tyres. In February 2022 a dozen excavators were digging up rice fields and wetland in Boeng Khyang and dozens of police and military officials were dispatched to ensure implementation of authorities’ instructions to carry out the works. The nine protesters charged with violence were acquitted in November 2022. At this time the number of villagers impacted by land acquisition increased; about 200 people demanded to know whether they would be joining the 300 families already being displaced for the airport. Numbers were sprayed in red paint on dozens of houses alongside the 94 canal, located about 5km from the airport site. Then in January 2023 residents affected by the airport development said company workers had instructed them to dismantle sheds housing animals, causing anxiety that their land might be cleared. Representatives of 460 families living around the airport project had requested land titles the previous month but received no response.

For more information about the airport land dispute see the case write-up on EJAtlas, the world’s largest, most comprehensive online database of socio-economic conflict related to environmental issues: New Phnom Aiport and Airport City, Kandal Province, Cambodia

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