Government soldiers rip down villiagers' houses on land earmarked for a casino at O'Smach
T least one former refugee has died and several others have lost limbs after 500
families were removed from their homes in O'Smach and forced onto inhospitable land,
to make way for a huge casino and hotel complex.
According to a UN official, the neighboring land was certified clear of mines by
Military Region Four.
But furious villagers protesting in Phnom Penh last month said that the land was
still mined - and that malaria was also prevalent.
Monique Sokha, of UNHCR, said she had visited the returnees in O'Smach, and had seen
one man who had trodden on a landmine.
"Both legs were blown off at the knee," she said. "He said he was
looking for thatch for his roof."
According to the villagers, another man has died from malaria since the move to the
new land, while ten others have fallen seriously ill with the disease.
Although the new land is only two kilometers from their original settlement, conditions
are far more conducive to malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
"The new land is very low lying, whereas before they were on an elevation,"
said Sokha. She added that it was also a forested area, which attracted the mosquitoes.
The evictions of the O'Smach villagers came in late August, accompanied by a "gift
giving ceremony" organized by local authorities to try and soften the blow.
Representatives from the Thai companies building the new complex, Lim Heng and Ly
Yong Phatt, distributed money and zinc roofing to some families from the area.
But the following day, the families were thrown out of their houses. One refugee
told the Post in October that there were beatings, house-burnings and threats from
the military during the evictions.
A delegation of government officials traveled to the border area late last month
to assess the situation of the returnees. Pol Lim, Chairman of the Secretariat for
National Land Disputes, said that the issue was being resolved.
"The committee has prepared another place one kilometer from the old village.
All this land has already been demined," he said. "We have resolved the
cases of 467 families."
He said that the families were receiving 10,000 baht each, but according to an earlier
statement by Senator Nhek Bun Chhay, the money had mysteriously shrunk from 10,000
to 3,000 baht. It is unclear whether there is a new settlement for 10,000 baht.
The Secretariat is traveling to land-dispute hotspots throughout the country to try
and settle claims, but in O' Smach the situation is particularly tricky, according
to Shaun Williams, Co-ordinator of the Cambodia Land Study Project, who has also
visited the site.
"The tranisiton from a principal security area to a civilian area is problematic,"
he said, referring to O' Smach's history as a resistance border post. "It's
not just because of the mines, but because the mechanisms for allocating land use
up there are pretty new."
According to Williams, the returnees have been offered two choices - an immediate
move to land further away from their current site, or an indefinite wait for land
closer to the border, which is currently still infested with landmines. There are
no guarantees as to when this land will be ready.
Pol Lim admitted that the original plan to send the refugees further away was not
"It wasn't acceptable to them, so we came up with the second plan," he
said, citing the land being offered one kilometer away. But despite this, the returnees
were still forced onto the mine-infested land first of all - where the malaria
and mine casualties occurred.
The situation for the returnees may not improve even if their land claim is finally
sorted out. A new 'international' market being built just meters from the border,
partly on the site of the villagers' old homes, is offering stalls to local traders
at vastly inflated prices, according to one official who visited the area. Many villagers
who make a living trading goods across the border are unable to afford the prices
of the new stalls, and may have to seek new ways of trading.
Some observers, including Senator Nhek Bun Chay, who commanded the resistance forces
at O'Smach in 1998, have expressed worries that the treatment of the villagers, who
include former soldiers, may lead to violence. Many of the villagers still possess
weapons from their resistance days.
Another observer who managed to visit the refugees in their makeshift homes said
the conditions were very bad.
"It's worse than a refugee camp," said the observer. "They're very
brave people, but this is an extremely volatile situation."