THOUSANDS of Kraya commune villagers continued Thursday to hold their ground against authorities trying to evict them.
But for the monks in this community at the centre of a land dispute that has flashed several times into violence, acquiescence to the loss of the village wat – set to be demolished along with the homes of those who once eked out a living farming cassava and other crops in this settlement for disabled veterans – signalled an end to a struggle that has played itself out for months as the government prepares to clear the land for private development.
“If we move to the new location now it will take a long time to construct a new pagoda, and I’m not sure we will have the money to do it,” Kin Ly, the pagoda’s chief monk, said Thursday as families from Kraya continued to trickle onto a patch of scrubland 7 kilometres away in Thmor Samleang commune, where 20-by-40-metre plots with a hectare each of farmland have been set aside for their new homes.
Pou Kin, a village representative who has so far refused to leave his home, said that residents were continuing to abandon their land under threat of violence.
“Today the authorities continued to force out people who refused to move,” Pou Kin said. Others said that they were unsure of how many of the original 1,700 Kraya families remained after the government earlier this week began a long-threatened eviction.
Authorities, however, continue to dispute the idea that they have invaded the community and effectively frogmarched residents to unfamiliar, inhospitable ground.
“We did not force them to agree to move – they volunteered to move,” said Ek Mat Muoly, chief of the Santuk district police. “We have no plans to arrest anyone because we are only here to help.”
The community was established in 2005, when an association of disabled veterans and their families began moving in and later received official permission to settle there.
In 2007, however, villagers’ land was included in an 8,000-hectare concession to Tin Bien, a Vietnamese rubber company.
In recent weeks, Kampong Thom provincial authorities began pushing in earnest for the community’s relocation, and a November 16 confrontation turned violent as villagers set fire to four company vehicles and 11 police motorbikes.
The community has since been blockaded: Around 100 soldiers and police arrived on Monday and forced 50 families to thumb-print relocation agreements at gunpoint, residents and rights workers said.
With two monks having already fled the pagoda under threat that they would be defrocked, the Kraya pagoda committee agreed Thursday that there was nothing to do but to move to the new location and allow the destruction of the wat and its dining hall.
“I really regret losing the wat, because we celebrated the groundbreaking ceremony for it here, and we spent a lot of time constructing it,” said 67-year-old Kara resident Chork Samoeun.
But Ek Mat Muoly tried to downplay these concerns.
“This location is an anarchic area – the destruction of the pagoda will be no impact to Buddhism because it doesn’t even look like a real pagoda,” he said, adding: “We will demolish it when all the clergymen move to the new location, and we will provide new land for them to construct a pagoda, a health centre and a school.”