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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Poipet poor muscled off disputed land

Poipet poor muscled off disputed land

Some 320 families in Poipet say they are the victims of a land grab. On July 16,

they put their thumbprints on a petition asking government organizations and NGOs

for help.

The families said they own plots on 20 hectares of land in Seila Khmer, a village

also known as Ang Seila, 10 kilometers outside Poipet. The families are former refugees

or poor migrants, dependent on day-to-day labour at the Poipet border crossing with

Thailand.

Since plans were announced to open up a new border crossing in the area, the value

of this land has gone from virtually nothing to an estimated $200,000, according

to the Housing Rights Task Force, an NGO monitoring the case.

The families said they bought the land in September 2000 after being resettled from

their previous homes, paying up to 500 baht each for a 15-by-20-meter plot. The seller

was a local NGO, DIWOC. They received a receipt, signed by DIWOC and the then village

chief.

However, as the land lacked basic facilities like water and roads, the families continued

to live in their squat slums by the railway in Poipet. But now, following plans to

renovate the railway, they will have to be out by September. With few alternatives,

they decided to go to Seila Khmer.

But when they arrived at what they believed was their land, they were stopped by

a border police officer named Nou Vantha, village representative Nit Chun said. He

told them to stay out. "Vantha threatened people who tried to live on the land

with a gun."

Following the dispute with Vantha, Chun said he went to the local police to ask for

help. But so far, nothing has happened.

Nou Vantha was working on behalf of Chea Ravy, who claimed to own a bigger area of

land, including the 300 families' plots. In a letter from the present village chief,

Chea Ravy was given the right to "clean up" the land for development.

When contacted by the Post, Ravy confirmed his claims to the land. He said he had

bought it in 2003 from 12 other private owners. The families never owned the land,

they were just fooled by DIWOC, he said.

Ravy is currently working on the land to prepare it for future development. He said

he was afraid that the villagers might come and destroy his machinery and that he

had put Nou Vantha there to prevent that.

Mike Fennema at the NGO ZOA, which is working on the spot with the case, said there

is information suggesting that the villagers could have been exposed to a dirty trick

when buying the land from DIWOC and added that there were suspicions about the organization's

director, Chum Pich.

"But of course the people buying didn't know that. And whoever bought the land

the second time would seem to me to have less right than the villagers."

He said he believed the question of who really owned the land was impossible to answer,

but requested that the provincial government take action to show concern for the

landless.

"They should make it very clear that they openly support the villagers. It would

do a lot for them."

The families have been offered free legal assistance by the Cambodian Defenders'

Project (CDP), an NGO that has worked with similar cases in the past - cases that

have involved accusations of land grabs by powerful people.

Em Sovan, a CDP lawyer in Battambang assigned to the case, said yesterday, July 29,

he had only just received the brief. "Now we wait for the people to thumbprint

the complaint and we will research the case next week."

(Additional reporting by Cheang Sokha)

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