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Buying Cambodia’s killing fields

Crossing Continents reporter Mukul Devichand
describes his trip to Cambodia to try to understand why global
investors are suddenly fighting to snap up cheap fertile paddy fields
from poor villagers, who claim they are being exploited and intimidated.
Producer Jo Mathys recording an interview for Crossing Continents’ Cambodia: Country for Sale
“There aren’t meant to be any landmines here,” says my producer Jo Mathys.
We’ve
followed the rulebook on operating in potentially unsafe environments
and made several checks before driving to this remote village in
Cambodia’s far north.
But sometimes, even the best checks only get you so far.
Outside the car window is a very large flag with a skull and crossbones – the international symbol for mines.
It’s a clear warning, do not tread here.

New conflict

Journalistically,
this is the most difficult part of the assignment. While there are no
end of non-governmental organisations eager to take us to villages
where they claim there was wrongdoing, the business community – perhaps
understandably – are wary of foreign reporters.

Crossing Continents reporter Mukul Devichand
Land mines are just one of the perils of reporting in Cambodia.
But
as we travel around the country making an edition of Crossing
Continents – the BBC radio documentary series on world affairs – it
soon dawns on us that much of what goes on here relates to recent
history and a very painful conflict.
The
country fell under the rule of leader Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge party from
1975-9, whose ‘social engineering’ policies resulted in the deaths of
an estimated two million people. And for more than a decade after that,
the Khmer Rouge were locked in a guerrilla war with the new,
Vietnamese-backed government.
Twelve years
after Pol Pot’s militia finally collapsed, we’re here to look at the
way the government has opened up the country’s land to private and
foreign investors.
These measures have
resulted in a new type of conflict. Today villagers are saying that
they’re being displaced so that their land can be sold.

Investigating allegations

Back
in the car, with the skull and crossbones still staring us in the face,
there’s a long and uncomfortable pause as Jo, myself and our local
colleague Yin Soeum make calls and speak to locals in Khmer and English.
Crossing Continents reporter Mukul Devichand

Crossing Continents reporter Mukul Devichand

We ascertain that the path to the village we are visiting is, in fact, landmine free and well trodden.
Indeed, the warning sign turns out to be a part of the story.
Mines
have now been cleared here, but it only happened when a private company
took over the village’s land to turn it into a sugar plantation.
And we are here to investigate claims that these villagers have been forcefully evicted by the company.

Fallout from history

So we get out of the car and set out on the long walk to O’Batman village, led by locals through the humid afternoon air.
There’s
not much to look at when we arrive. The burnt out shells of the
villagers’ old homes are behind a perimeter fence, guarded by armed
police.
The villagers say they were chased
out and their houses set alight by authorities, shortly before a Thai
investor acquired the land.
Investors
often say villagers like these are ‘squatters’, because they don’t have
documents to prove they own the fields being taken over.
Land being built on by developers, photographed while recording the programme

Land being built on by developers, photographed while recording the programme

And
technically they are right because the Khmer Rouge, deciding to turn
back the clock to ‘year zero’, burned all land deeds back in the 1970s.
So, just like the land mines, this current conflict is a direct result of the fallout from Cambodia’s painful history.

Uncomfortable moments

A few days later, back in the capital Pnomh Penh, Jo and I are in the more congenial surrounds of the Metro Cafe.
It’s a favourite place for casual business meetings and the best venue in town to meet investors from abroad.
We’re
keen to know what these investors think, so we take it in turns to
strike up conversations with bemused-looking foreign businessmen, using
our smatterings of Hindi and Mandarin, as well as English.
Journalistically,
this is the most difficult part of the assignment. While there are no
end of non-governmental organisations eager to take us to villages
where they claim there was wrongdoing, the business community – perhaps
understandably – are wary of foreign reporters.
After a number of dead-end conversations, I finally strike gold.

Winners and losers

Producer Jo Mathys recording street sounds for the documentary

Producer Jo Mathys recording street sounds for the documentary

The next morning I’m in a motorcycle rickshaw on the way to meet George, a Chinese Malaysian investor.
He
introduces me to Liv Sokhpetra, his local business partner. Aged 28,
having already made millions of dollars in land and other deals, this
intriguing man (who goes by the nickname ‘Petra’) becomes a big part of
our documentary and an indicator to what Cambodia’s new elite really
thinks.
Petra transports us around in his own four-wheel drive.
He maintains he has never ‘grabbed’ land, but acknowledges there are many losers in the new investment rush.
“It’s just too bad for them,” he tells me.
Like every Cambodian, he’s seen much pain in his own lifetime and any form of change is welcome.
BBC World Service
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Categories: Local News
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