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Homes burned in land dispute

SIEM REAP PROVINCE
AROUND 50 military and civilian police officers and Environment Department workers destroyed at least 100 homes on contested land in Oddar Meanchey province Tuesday morning, dismantling some structures and burning others to the ground, officials and rights workers said.

Police said afterwards that they carried out the operation in accordance with orders from Siem Reap provincial court, but villagers and the rights group Adhoc blasted the move as premature, noting that a court case related to a dispute over the land remains unresolved.

Representatives of the families that lost their homes say the land – located near Kulen-Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary in Anlong Veng commune’s O’Ampil village – was purchased from Environment Department officials in 2000, with each family paying US$1,000 for 30-by-200-metre plots. In 2007, however, Environment Department officials moved to evict the families, prompting them to file a complaint with district officials.

When no action resulted from that complaint, the families in 2009 took their case to Siem Reap provincial court, which earlier this month accused five Environment Department officials of illegally selling protected state land. Two of those officials were arrested on May 4, and three others remain at large.

The court has since March 2009 ordered the arrest of six villagers accused of cutting down trees in a protected area. One of the villagers is still behind bars.

Srey Naren, provincial coordinator for the rights group Adhoc, said Tuesday that some 300 families were living in the village, and that 200 homes were destroyed. He emphasised that the dispute over the land should have been settled in court.

Referring to the villagers, he said, “Their complaints are still in court, and they have shown a lot of documents proving they bought the land from officials.”

Chao Samneng, chief of the Anlong Veng district crime office, said there were at most 200 families in the village, and placed the number of destroyed dwellings at 103. He said that these were “huts, not homes”.

He added that officials had been ordered by the court to evict the families, and had opted to destroy their homes when they refused to leave.
“They are so stubborn, so we burned their homes,” he said, and added that no injuries had been reported.

He referred further questions to provincial Governor Pich Sokhen, who could not be reached. Siem Reap provincial court prosecutor Ty Soveinthal also could not be reached Tuesday, but deputy prosecutor Toch Sopheakdey said the homes had been ordered destroyed because “it relates to the protected forest area in the national park”.

He added that he could provide no updates on when the land dispute might be heard in court.

Chhaom Chhoeun, 42, whose home was among those destroyed, said he had gone into hiding in the forest.

He criticised officials for failing to warn the families that an eviction was coming.

“If they were coming to burn down the villagers’ houses, they should have told us in advance so we could have saved our property. Now I have lost everything, even my rice,” he said. “We will stay out on the land tonight.”

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