Fifty-eight Phnong ethnic families in Kbal Romeas village, whose land was flooded late last year by the reservoir of the controversial Lower Sesan II Dam, are seeking at least 1,500 buffaloes from authorities and company representatives in compensation for their ancestral graves that are now submerged.
Yun Lorang, secretary-coordinator for the Cambodia Indigenous Peoples Alliance, said the villagers met their pro-bono lawyer Sek Sophorn on Saturday, and raised the issue of compensation for the estimated 150 graves of their ancestors, elders and community leaders.
Their request comes on the heels of villagers being allowed by authorities to live at resettlement locations of their preference, rather than strictly at government-approved sites.
The ethnic minority’s traditional beliefs hold that their ancestors’ spirits inhabit their grave sites, prompting them to make the compensation request, Lorang added. The traditional compensation for a ruined grave is 10 buffaloes.
“This is the traditional condition, which we need to demand,” said Lorang, who attended Saturday’s meeting. “The traditional practice is serious. If anyone causes [damage] to their grave, they must serve them with offering elephants and buffaloes.”
Read more: Life after the flood
Lorang, who himself is ethnically Phnong, said the buffaloes will be offered to appease the ancestors’ spirits in order to prevent them from cursing and punishing their descendants.
Sophorn said negotiations for the compensation request are still ongoing, but as soon as his clients complete their request, he will forward it to provincial authorities. Villagers also plan to seek compensation for their lost crops and rice fields. “I will try my best to tell authorities about what they want,” he said.
Srang Lanh, one of the villagers, said every Khmer New Year’s Day, the villagers typically pray at their ancestors’ graves. But for the upcoming New Year in April, they don’t yet know how they will mark the occasion.
“The ancestors’ graves were deeply flooded and it’s hard for people to set the ritual,” she said. “Perhaps, we’ll pray in the water in order to tell the spirits not to punish us and the younger generation, because the flood [was due to] development, not [caused by] the young generation.”
Men Kong, spokesman for Stung Treng Provincial Hall, said officials had no policy to offer traditional compensation, but authorities could consider monetary compensation, although it would have to be less than the estimated cost of the 10 buffaloes per grave.
“It is too much, as buffaloes are expensive,” he said.