KIRI SAKOR — It was 8 in the morning, and families living in Cambodia"s Kiri Sakor district were desperately fleeing from their homes. Backed by the military, a company called the Union Development Group was systematically burning down people's houses.
Children were crying while their parents fought authorities, who marched on their community with guns. Nearly 2,000 families had been living in the area since the 1980s.
Local farmer Prak Sareth, who is 30, says her 49-acre piece of land was seized by the Chinese-owned company last year and now their houses have been burned down.
"This is our parents' land for their sons and daughters," she says. "It's now been seized. The company only provided us with a small plot of land, but it isn't enough to allow us to plant rice or bananas like we did in the past. How can we live on that?"
The mangroves and mountains of Kiri Sakor and Botum Sakor are also being cut and cleared. It's part of China-based Union Development Group's master plan to transform the area into a mega-tourism resort covering 112,000 acres. The company now holds a 99-year lease on the area, which it plans to use for the $4 billion resort project.
Some families have moved to relocation sites, but Preap Ratha vows to stay despite having lost her home. "We will struggle until death," she says. "We will not abandon our traditional farm lands and our profession. If we decide to leave, we will face hunger, and our children won't be able to live.”
Chan Sithan, who is monitoring the case as part of his work for an organization called NGO Forum, says the military crackdown and the burning of people's houses are serious human rights abuses.
"I think this is bad for our human rights record," he says of Cambodia. "Using the military to burn down people's houses is a crime against humanity, and it's illegal. The military has no right to defend a private company."
But Kiri Sakor district Governor Khim Chandy says the military has done nothing wrong. "It's just the result of people refusing to leave and wanting to stay without the support of the local authorities. We asked the central government to allow them to live around the area, but the government didn't give permission."
Back at Kiri Sakor district, many farmers are staying on to protect their land and homes as best they can. Farmer So Sambath is calling for Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to review the decision.
"The authorities have come and beaten our people," the farmer says. "They burned down our houses and forced us to leave without decent compensation. Now we have nothing to eat, and I have no way of taking care of my sons. We want the prime minister to resolve the crisis."