OFFICIALS moved one step closer to forcibly evicting 43 families in Koh Kong province Tuesday when a provincial court judge divided a swath of disputed land between two feuding businessmen, and villagers who stand to be affected complained that they had been excluded from all discussion concerning land they have lived on for more than a decade, residents and rights workers said.
Sre Ambel district officials had earlier signalled the eviction would be carried out Tuesday, and residents said more than 200 villagers gathered early Tuesday morning and prepared to obstruct any attempt to remove the families.
Instead, 50 police officers escorted Deputy Judge Meas Vatanea to the site, where he read aloud a June Supreme Court ruling that awarded the land to the two businessmen, Sok Hong and Heng Huy, residents said.
They said Meas Vatanea then marked off how the land would be divided, with most going to Heng Huy.
In a surprise move, they said, Meas Vatanea also ruled that some of the 43 families were living in Chi Khor Leu commune, headed by Chhay Vuth, and not Chi Khor Krom commune, headed by Toav Vann.
Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for the rights group Licadho, said this was significant because Chhay Vuth was known for being “very sympathetic” to Heng Huy, who has said he plans to convert the land into a cassava farm.
Chhay Vuth could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
They are completely changing my village. how can they do that?
Am Sam Ath said the Supreme Court ruling, combined with Meas Vatanea’s demarcation amounted to “a green light for [Heng Huy’s] company to do basically whatever it wants”.
He added that he expected the eviction to be carried out within “a matter of weeks”.
Villagers said the actions taken by Meas Vatanea had left them confused, and several said they were increasingly concerned that they would be powerless to stop the eviction.
“I am really not sure about my family’s situation now, because they said they would come to evict us, but now they have just given our land to someone else, who can evict us at any time,” said Phav Nheung, a representative for the families.
Tep Hai, another villager, said, “Now we are even more worried about our land because it is no longer located in Chi Kor Krom. We now live in Chi Kor Leu.”
“They are completely changing my village. How can they do that?” Tep Hai said.
Am Sam Ath said court officials had made no attempt to engage the villagers, and had instead spent the day “ignoring the villagers as if they were not there”.
When Meas Vatanea first arrived and addressed the assembled villagers, he told them that the ruling had nothing to do with them, Am Sam Ath said.
He added: “Sure, the [Supreme Court] verdict has to do with the businessmen, but this land is where these people are, and it affects them in the sense that it brings them one step closer to being forcibly evicted.”
Am Sam Ath said police officers had tried to block the villagers from following Meas Vatanea as he surveyed the area and consulted with Heng Huy and Sok Hong.
Meas Vatanea, for his part, said he had engaged the villagers by reading the Supreme Court verdict to them, adding that all decisions made Tuesday concerned the dispute between the businessmen.
“I did not go there this morning to get into an argument with the people,” he said.
He also accused the villagers of “trying to push our car and not allowing us onto their land”, a reference to a scuffle that occurred shortly after the verdict was read.
Am Sam Ath acknowledged that the villagers had “tried to block the car”.
He said, however, that the altercation was nothing more than “a little bit of pushing” between villagers and police officers.
The case of the Sre Ambel villagers has recently drawn the attention of King Norodom Sihamoni, who on Saturday wrote a letter to Minister of Justice Ang Vong Vathana asking him to investigate the case.
Kim Sophorn, inspector general at the Justice Ministry, said the ministry had not yet received a letter from the Royal Palace.
Chan Mono, chief of cabinet at the ministry, said Ang Vong Vathana was in Vietnam.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ROBBIE COREY-BOULET