Kampong Thom Province
SURROUNDED by armed soldiers and told their homes would be put to the torch, a further 200 families from Kampong Thom’s Kraya commune – the scene of a bitter two-year land dispute – caved to official pressure to relocate on Wednesday, community representatives said.
More than 80 soldiers and 30 military police officers descended on the commune for a second day, loading family belongings onto trucks bound for the relocation site 7 kilometres away in Thmor Samleang commune.
“Today a lot of our villagers agreed to accept the authorities’ policy because police threatened to arrest us, burn down our houses and destroy our cassava farms if we refuse,” said villager Muong Sinat.
“We must force our minds to accept their compensation, even though we know it is a small plot of land in a flood-prone area, because there are at least 100 police with guns and we women are unarmed.”
The disabled veterans – to whom the land was originally granted in 2005 – and their families had been defying eviction orders since the property was sold by the state to a Vietnamese rubber firm two years later.
“They asked us to agree to move, gave us a list to register and then took our property to the new location, even though we did not agree to go,” Muong Sinat said.
Community representative Pou Kin, wanted by police in connection with the burning of four vehicles owned by rubber firm Tin Bien when villagers clashed with police on November 16, said he was heartbroken.
“My name is on their list of people to arrest,” he said.
“If I agree to accept [compensation], I will not be arrested, so the last choice I have is to accept. We are poor and weak. We always lose. The rich people with power always win.
“The prime minister gave us permission to live here, but still we get evicted because the company has a lot of money to pay the authorities. No one is stronger than money.”
Neang Sinat, one of the villagers who agreed to accept the government offer of a 20-by-40 metre housing tract with a hectare of farmland, called on the authorities to postpone the eviction by one month in order to allow the families to harvest their cassava.
The families have been told they can return to Kraya to collect their crops in the morning, but must be back in the new location by nightfall – an offer villagers say is unrealistic given that they must travel the 14 kilometres on foot.
On arrival at Thmor Samleang, families were given little more than tents – and no clear indication which plot of land would be theirs.
“We don’t have food to eat, and we did not see any authorities come to talk with us yet,” said Prak Many.
“I need to know exactly where my new land is, and then I will cut trees to construct my house. I don’t want to live in bad conditions like this.”
On Tuesday, the same day one of the seven arrested in connection with the November 16 altercation was released on bail, Kraya’s pagoda was destroyed and the clergy forced to leave.
“In name they are Buddhists. They should respect monks, not speak bad words to me and force me to defrock,” said Chief Monk Kin Ly.
The version of events given by officials contrasted starkly with the villagers’ testimonies.
Ek Mat Muoly, chief of Santuk district police, said: “Our officials did not threaten people – we just went to help them.”
Asked to explain why the government had sold the 8,000-hectare site at Kraya to a private enterprise after granting the families permission to dwell on the land, Kampong Thom Governor Chhun Chhorn – who insisted families at the relocation site had been given food – would only say that the matter was “difficult to talk about”.
Human rights activists offered a scathing assessment. Mathieu Pellerin of Licadho said: “The use of armed soldiers against civilians is totally illegal.”
The remaining families at Kraya, who total about 1,000, have been invited by officials to visit the relocation site today.
If they again refuse, human rights groups fear a forced eviction could be less than 48 hours away.