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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Brigade 31 seizing land: villagers

Brigade 31 seizing land: villagers

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On the fringes of Bokor, a dispute is raging between Brigade 31 soldiers, who say they're redistributing land to the poor, and local villagers who say they're losing their homes

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The Centre for Development of Disabled Soldiers in Kampot province.

A VILLAGE in Kampot province's Bokor National Park remains the focus of a land dispute that villagers say has resulted in members of Prime Minister Hun Sen's elite Brigade 31 evicting residents and preparing the land for sale to a private company.

The Centre for Development of Disabled Soldiers was begun in June this year, nominally to provide housing for veterans with disabilities at Kbal Damrei, located in the park.

But local residents say the military has used the pretense of the centre to expel them from their homes and sell the land for profit.

"We have been told that soldiers are preparing the land for sale to a private company," said Nhek Chanthol, who lives in Kbal Damrei.

Nhek Chanthol said about 1,000 families live on the land but that nearly 500 of them have been displaced and their crops destroyed by soldiers bulldozing the area.

Brigade 31 commander Sun Saroeun denied the claim and said his troops are only dividing the land with the villagers for the benefit of veterans.

"I don't have the right to sell any of this land," Sun Saroeun told the Post Sunday.

"The agreement to divide land into smaller plots was signed by the head of our government."

Sun Saroeun said those spreading the rumours of a private sale are themselves outsiders who purchased plots illegally from current residents and lost them when authorities redistributed the plots.

"We are trying to provide land for landless people," Sun Saroeun said.

Land redistribution

The dispute began on June 23, when Brigade 31 soldiers posted land redistribution signs throughout the village.

Residents responded by pulling them up. A later protest saw the arrest of four residents, including Nhek Chanthol's mother - all of whom remain in Kampot provincial prison on charges of robbery and destroying property.

Chin Lida, a lawyer from the human rights group Licadho who is defending the four prisoners, said the court is in the process of investigating the case and a trial is expected to start soon.

One resident, who gave her name as Thim, said the land the soldiers had allotted to villagers is being repossessed, according to a press release from the human rights group Adhoc.

"They let people onto new areas of land. Once it is cleared, they repossess it," she was quoted as saying.

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