"I don’t know how to protect the territorial integrity [of the nearby Cambodian-Thai border] – even my three hectares of land I cannot protect,” said Bun Chanthorn, 54, one of hundreds of retired and active soldiers who since 2010 have been battling the local authorities and a rubber company over thousands of hectares of land in Pursat’s Veal Veng district.
In 2000, Chanthorn, along with more than 500 families, moved to the newly established commune Thma Da after local authorities put the land aside for former Khmer Rouge soldiers who joined Cambodian forces after the 1998 integration. More than a decade later, 65 of those families are mired in an increasingly protracted battle to have the land they were given formally recognised.
Sitting inside a spacious wooden house surrounded by copious mango and jackfruit trees, Chanthorn spoke last week of the frustration he and his cohorts have faced.
“When the country has a war, they need us, but when it is peaceful, they threaten to seize our land without considering our seniority, without considering how we sacrificed our lives for the nation,” he said.
Though Chanthorn has long farmed this land, he has been barred from continuing to do so in the past year by Oknha Try Pheap’s MDS Import-Export Co, Ltd, which was granted a 4,373-hectare concession in the area in December 2010. The new commune chief, said Chanthorn, refused to accept a receipt of ownership issued by his predecessor on the pretext that the area lay inside a conservation zone.
When volunteer students came to the area starting last June, they measured the company’s land, avoiding the villagers, locals told the Post.
“The authorities didn’t allow the volunteer youths to measure our land,” said Chanthorn’s neighbor Sem Ry, 57, who has also held claim to three hectares since 2000 along with her husband – a soldier who served on the border.
“My husband served the nation and sacrificed for the nation in exchange for three hectares of land, but now the company does not allow us to farm and the authorities do not allow the volunteer youths to measure our land. That is the result of the sacrifice of my family’s life that we have,” she said angrily.
For Ry, the land is more than a livelihood, it’s a battlefield and a burial yard – two of her children died while clearing it for planting after hitting one of the hundreds of landmines that once littered this area.
Like her neighbours, she has long fought against MDS, which the community accuses of land-grabbing. In December, nearly 3,000 hectares was cut away from the MDS concession and awarded back to villagers, but her family is among those excluded. The ongoing fight, meanwhile, has taken its toll.
“Sometimes, when I am looking at my children’s tombs, thinking of how they died making this farm and thinking about what the land is now, I am not sure why I keep protesting for this,” she said.
Many have given up and moved away; others have been forced to undertake risky propositions. “Because of the conflict, my two children have migrated to Thailand to earn money to help the family. Otherwise, we cannot live,” said Prak Sophal, another resident who was given three hectares in 2000.
Khoy Sokha, Pursat provincial governor, insisted that the government was working on a solution to the dispute.
If the group was in fact left out of the land measurement, he said, it is simply because they are located in a border area – which is not meant to be demarcated by student volunteers.
“If they are really soldiers’ families, they will get their social land concession. I will find it for them,” he said.
But rights groups say they are certain the reason they have been left out of the measurement process is to ensure the land is set aside for Try Pheap’s company, which could not be reached for comment.
In March, police filed a complaint against 10 retired soldiers, claiming they were cutting trees in the protected zone; a month later, the Thma Da commune chief filed an incitement complaint against Adhoc senior investigator Chan Soveth after he spoke out about the dispute.
“On behalf of civil society,” Soveth said Sunday, “I kindly insist the government deal with people and avoid discrimination. Those in well-connected families and those who are relatives of police officers have all had their land measured, but the families of the soldiers have not been measured yet.”