Villagers who have refused to leave their homes to make way for one of Southeast Asia’s largest hydropower dams have denied accusation from the government that they are seeking to start a secessionist movement in the country.
The Lower Sesan II hydropower project, a joint venture between China’s Hydrolancang International, Cambodia’s Royal Group, and a state-owned Vietnamese firm, began pre-operation testing on July 15, flooding parts of Srekor village, where some locals have refused to leave and turned down compensation offers.
Last week, a provincial official told local media that the holdouts were “secessionists” who had refused to allow the authorities to establish a center in the village to assist villagers to leave.
Choeun Sreymom, a representative of the ethnic minority Bunong villagers, said the remaining villagers had no intention of stoking secessionist sentiment.
“They should understand people are suffering...Only those who have been directly affected understand how hard this is for the community.”
The Bunong and Lao people place spiritual significance on the forests and ancestral burial grounds which will be flooded when the dam goes online.
Suth Thoeun, a representative of the Lao community in Srekor village, said that “people will resist” until their relocation demands were met.
In Kbal Romeas village, locals have also refused to move ahead of the flooding - about 700 people in total.
Doung Pov, deputy provincial governor, said the accusation of secession was not a government position, but questioned why the villagers had declined offers of help.
“We don’t understand. I don’t understand them,” he said, going on to suggest the villagers might seek to create a “separate administration”.
Despite reports from villagers to the contrary, Pov said no armed forces had been deployed in the area.
“There were no weapons, no police or soldiers brought into the villages. They were all officials and mostly women who went to meet them to start a dialogue between the state and the people,” he said.
He added that the authorities had agreed to end the testing of the dam at the end of August to give villagers more time to evacuate the area.
The Lower Sesan II dam is due to go online on September 25.