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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Rampant land grabs leave rights groups reeling

Rampant land grabs leave rights groups reeling

The Cambodian Defenders' Project and the Cambodian Center for Human Rights are struggling

to cope with the fallout from large-scale land ownership disputes, where usually

the victims or losers are the powerless poor.

CDP co-ordinator Chea Dara said in most cases land occupied by families was confiscated

by official authorities and powerful people.

The CCHR investigation division said it has dealt with 25 major land cases since

1998, in many different provinces, involving thousands of people.

This month violence has erupted at two locations where land ownership or occupation

is in dispute, at Poipet (Banteay Meanchey) and Kampong Speu.

At Poipet, where 320 families claim to be victims of a land grab, a man was shot

in the leg and another hit with an ax during an attempt to place marker poles on

plots on Sunday, August 8. Ten villagers armed with knives and axes fought with police,

who were trying to block them. The deputy police chief said his men were in the wrong.

Chhun Pich, the chairman of HRDIWOC (Human Rights Protection and Development Organization

to Improve Circumstance of Women and Orphans in Cambodia) said: "Chea Ravy is

illegally controlling the 20 hectares of land. This land belongs to 480 citizens

because they cut the forest and controlled the land before him. They were legally

accepted on documents signed by village chief Lon Sangvar and the local authority."

Chea Ravy confirmed he had bought it in 2003 from 12 other private owners.

Keo Sen, the O'Chrou district governor, said the land rightfully belonged to the

villagers, who authorities evacuated from a railway station in 2000, and resettled

in the now disputed area.

* In Kampong Speu town, villagers are sceptical about a conciliatory offer by Chumteav

You Ay, secretary of state at the Ministry of Women's and Veteran's Affairs, over

1,000 hectares of disputed land.

The dispute has been going on for five years. The villagers accuse You Ay of forcing

them to sell at below market value. You Ay says village ringleaders sold her the

land but then refused to move, and invited others to settle there. The villagers

said 550 families now farm land which is claimed by You Ay.

She has reportedly offered to build wells and a road, and give the protesting villagers

100 hectares of the disputed 1,000 hectares under her control.

She also reportedly offered amnesty to three land-grabbing ringleaders if they apologised

to the court and promised not to incite violence or take more land.

On August 9 villagers protested in Kampong Speu town about the arrest of Seng Sarath,

an alleged ringleader who has been arrested and is in prison. Police reportedly kicked

and beat people with electric batons in front of the provincial court.

The next day, dozens of villagers came to Phnom Penh and tried to protest Sarath's

innocence outside the National Assembly but were moved by police.

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