A Ministry of Interior immigration official at the centre of a long-running land dispute in a gem mining district of Ratanakkiri spoke out for the first time yesterday, just days after 200 villagers protested what they termed their illegal eviction.
The villagers from Bakeo district’s Keh Chung commune claim they had been farming and mining for gems on the land in Keh Chung since 2005, and said Heng Socheat had no right to evict them as he had bought the land using aliases and possessed invalid land titles.
Socheat, accompanied by the chief of Roy village and three other village representatives, yesterday denied the protesters’ accusations and showed the Post documents that he says prove he owns the land.
In addition, he said, the disgruntled villagers were largely outsiders and recent immigrants who had settled on the land after he allegedly bought it.
“I do not have that much land, only up to 100 hectares,” he said. “We are the victims. They live on my land, and now I do not dare to walk on it. They threaten my life. There are no more gems on my land. They have got them all.”
Though Socheat maintains that he first bought the land in 2007, his titles date from 2013 – when the government was in the midst of a massive land titling scheme – and villagers accuse him of secretly sweeping the land out from under them.
According to Adhoc coordinator Chhay Thy, the NGO’s investigation revealed that Socheat, along with his wife and children, have 15 of the 20 land titles issued in the area by land-titling volunteers who visited the area.
“Each of Heang Socheat’s land titles covered from 5 to 9 hectares of land,” Thy said.
But Socheat said yesterday that he and his children did not have 15 land titles, insisting instead that he and his wife, Cheng Suo Huorng, had only three titles covering about 22 hectares, while his children possessed another six titles.
A letter from the Rattanakiri Provincial Land Management Department seemingly corroborated documents Socheat presented that showed his family in possession of nine land titles. In the letter, Keh Chung commune chief Rocham Lai is identified as a signatory to the purchase agreements.
But Lai yesterday said he had not signed off on the documents, which he described as “irregular”. Further, Lai claimed that Socheat had initially signed for the land titles under the alias Chy Socheat, presenting himself as an RCAF brigade commander in Ratanakkiri’s O’Yadav district.
Socheat rejected the claim outright yesterday, adding that when he bought the disputed land in 2007 for farming, there were only three migrant families who asked to do gem mining, a number that has since grown to hundreds.
Roy village chief Rocham Phang yesterday presented the Post with 10 more land titles that he claimed had been “grabbed” by recently arrived migrant families.
“The stone diggers who are protesting want to grab our lands,” Phang said. “We want justice, because the new migrants came and took the land.”