More than 500 ethnic minority residents of riparian communities in northeastern Cambodia held a peaceful protest Tuesday against the construction of a Vietnamese-led hydroelectric dam that will relocate them from their ancestral land.
The villagers, who live along the Se San River in Stung Treng and Ratanakiri provinces, marched on foot and led a boat procession to the Lower Se San 2 Hydroelectric Dam construction site, about 25 kilometers (16 miles) upstream from Stung Treng city—the provincial capital.
They donned red cloth around their waists and foreheads to honor local spirits and held prayers to protect the river ecology from the U.S. $816 million dam project, which is being led by Electricity of Vietnam.
Villagers also carried banners which read, “We must preserve the river, which is the livelihood of the people.” The Se San River is a tributary of the Mekong River.
Representative Siek Mekong told RFA that dam construction would force the ethnic minority villagers to be evacuated from their land along the riverside and would lead to the loss of their plantations and sacred graveyards and forests.
“We urge the local authorities and the government to stop the dam construction plan,” he said, adding that villagers would not take money or the promise of new property to move.
“We don’t want any compensation [to relocate] even though the authorities have promised to compensate us.”
Local authorities met with villager representatives during the protest, but were unable to come to an agreement on the dam project.
Deputy commune chief Beng Teng of nearby Sre Kor district said that authorities had initially sought to prevent the villagers from marching against the dam construction, but later allowed the protest because representatives promised to proceed in a peaceful manner.
“Local police telephoned me and told me to halt the protest or they would deploy forces to crack down on the villagers. But the villagers didn’t do anything wrong, they just prayed to their spirits,” he said.
“The villagers voted for me, so I must support them.”
Provincial governor Loy Sophat could not be reached for comment on the status of the dam, but an official with the Ministry of Industry, which issued licenses for the project, said the Cambodian government had not finalized plans for construction yet.
In 2007, Cambodia’s Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy, and Electricity of Vietnam signed a memorandum of understanding which included the undertaking of an environmental impact assessment and a feasibility study for the Lower Se San 2 project.
In January 2011, Vietnam’s Ministry of Planning and Investment licensed Electricity of Vietnam to make its investment into the project.
The project is being carried out by the Cambodia-Vietnam Hydropower Company, a joint company of EVN International—a subsidiary of Electricity of Vietnam—which holds a 51 percent majority stake and the Royal Group of Cambodia, which holds the remaining 49 percent.
Site preparations for the construction on the 400-megawatt dam began in 2011. Critics of the project have said that without a national grid, Cambodia will be unable to make use of the power generated by the dam and that the majority of the electricity will be sold to Vietnam.
An RFA reporter who witnessed the protest and visited the construction site said hundreds of hectares of forest had been cleared for the dam reservoir and at least three bulldozers were clearing trees through controlled burns.
As many as 2,000 people—most of whom are members of ethnic minority groups—are facing relocation because of the project and environmental activists say nearly 80,000 people will lose access to fish whose migratory paths will be blocked by the dam.