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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Land disputes flaring

Land disputes flaring

KOMPONG CHAMLANG - A series of bitter land disputes is plaguing this Kandal

commune as farmers try to retake land their families lost under the Pol Pot

regime.

There have been more than 100 complaints about land-grabbing -

attracting ministerial attention - since the 1993 UNTAC

elections.

Arrests and detentions have become routine. One person has

been shot.

The conflict has political overtones, with some of those

arrested alleging they are persecuted for being known FUNCINPEC party

supporters.

Commune authorities, meanwhile, maintain they are just

clamping down on people taking land which is no longer their

families'.

The latest flare-ups at the commune, in remote countryside

40-50km northeast of Phnom Penh, have seen four arrests since late

January.

Men Seb, 42, was arrested on Jan 30 after he planted rice on a

plot of land he said was owned by his family before the Khmer Rouge

rule.

"The soldiers tied my arms behind my back and took me away," he

said. "I was held for two nights in a locked room [at the Ksarch Kandal district

headquarters]."

He was released, with the help of the Licadho human

rights group, after being "forced" to put his thumbprint on a statement pledging

he would not go on to the disputed land again.

Seb, a Funcinpec supporter

who had a "strong involvement in political matters" during the UNTAC elections,

said officials had mocked his political ties during his detention.

"They

laughed and said 'If you want to be free, ask [Funcinpec leader] Samdech Krom

Preah Norodom Ranariddh to help you."

He said had been harassed and

taunted by armed men since the elections.

Another man had been shot and

seriously wounded by unknown gunmen more than a year ago following a land

dispute, and others were living in fear.

The latest arrests in the

commune prompted several villagers to write to human rights groups and the Post

to appeal for help to fight what they claim is systematic persecution of

Funcinpec supporters.

"We are unhappy with the way we are treated by the

local village and commune authorities and their armed men who have conducted

evil acts against the people, including threats and the detention of people,"

the letter said.

The commune's chief, San Sareth, denied there was any

political motivation behind the arrests.

"The authority has to clamp down

on offenders, regardless of their political background."

He said the

disputes related to the distribution of land by the communist State of Cambodia

regime in the early 1980s, after the KR's 1975-79 rule.

The commune's

land had been divided evenly, he said, but on the basis of quality, not size.

People had received small pieces of good land, such as that near a water supply

like a river, or bigger  blocks of poorer quality land.

Discontentment

blew up in recent years, with people trying to retake their ancestral land.

There had been 113 complaints about this since the elections, he

said.

Interior Minister You Hockry had visited the commune to tell the

authorities how to try to settle disputes. He ruled that land could not be taken

from its current owners, though people were free to swap pieces of

land.

Seb said that, in the 1980s land distribution, he had received a

piece of hilly, "bad" land which could not be farmed for lack of

irrigation.

He alleged that some 50 hectares of prime land - including

his family's former plot - had been kept by local officials for themselves at

that time.

Since the elections, they had begun selling or giving away

pieces of that - to Cambodian People's Party (CPP) supporters, he

said.

"They said that if I wanted land, I should go to

FUNCINPEC."

The commune's FUNCINPEC organizer during the elections, Iem

Roeung, said he knew of five families who were struggling to survive because

they had no good land to farm.

They had all been FUNCINPEC supporters

during the elections, many of whom were routinely threatened by soldiers or

police loyal to the commune's CPP officials.

"I have been threatened with

killing. Since the elections, I don't dare travel at night, or even go to quiet

places in the daytime.

"We just want the right to life. We hardly have

that now - they have the guns, they can do anything they want."

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