Mol Phat (L) has been living with her bother-in-law and father-in-law since being evicted from her home last May. Photograph: Will Baxter/Phnom Penh Post
A track of land once farmed by 1,000 families in Kratie province — families violently evicted amid claims they were part of a separatist movement — is now home to a military base.
Unit 9 Royal Cambodian Armed Forces base, which will be finished later this month, is part of a larger security-infrastructure scheme for the area. The plans include a military police base, along with a road suitable for moving supplies from the centre of Chhlong district to the remote village of Pro Ma, provincial and military police officials confirmed yesterday.
“The military base was set up because of our victory over this area... the reason I’m here is just to control land won from the Bun Ratha group,” Unit 9 deputy commander Khay Channa told the Post during a visit to the area last week.
Nine months ago, joint forces stormed this isolated village and staged one of the largest mass evictions in recent history.
Although the villagers were without guns, officials opened fire, killing a 14-year-old girl in the process.
Authorities then sealed off the area for days while they interrogated residents, before driving them as far afield as Kampong Thom province.
The government has vociferously and repeatedly defended its actions, saying they were necessary to staunch a separatist movement led by a local activist named Bun Ratha and Beehive radio owner Mam Sonando.
Such claims have been widely criticised by villagers and rights groups, who insist there has been zero evidence to suggest such a movement ever existed.
Regardless of the backlash, however, Sonando was sentenced to 20 years in prison; three villagers were sentenced to between 10 months and five years; and Ratha was sentenced to 30 years in absentia.
Because Ratha remains at large, a perpetual military presence is necessary, officials say.
“We’re afraid Bun Ratha will come back here, which is why they set up the base. His followers, however, have stayed away,” said deputy commander Channa.
The base, which has been provisionally set up since the May 2012 raid, is expected to be completed at the end of this month.
Though small – just 30 soldiers are based on a 200-by-200-metre plot – it is part of a co-ordinated effort to protect the area.
“The army is constructing a road from Chhlong to here,” said Channa. “Seven kilometres from here, the military police plan to do the same thing and build a base. They have started clearing the trees. I’m not sure how large it will be.”
Though sparing with details, National Military Police spokesman Kheng Tito yesterday confirmed the account, saying the planned base was necessary to maintain security in the area.
“The reason the military police want to set up a base here is to keep that place in order. All the area that has been cleared already has to be kept in order. It’s just temporary, not permanent. And later, it will be up to the government if they want to put a more permanent base.”
Inside Unit Nine
Sparse and muted, the incomplete base is not much to look at. On a recent visit, soldiers dozed beneath a pair of spare, half-finished wood houses. Save for an open-air hall sporting a freshly painted RCAF logo, the rest of the structures occupying the land are little more than tarpaulin tents.
“There is not enough food and not enough water for the soldiers,” said Channa, who admitted that “everything is quiet... and there is not much work to do here.”
But what the area lacks in resources, it more than makes up for in land.
Located adjacent to a 15,000-hectare rubber plantation – which since 2008 has been owned by concessionaire Casotim – this land had been locked in an increasingly tense dispute. Just one month before the raid, 700 villagers from the area staged a protest – blocking a national road for days in support of an outspoken village representative who had been arrested on accusations of destroying company property.
A provincial judge later ordered his release, noting that there was no evidence to support allegations against that representative, Bun Ratha.
The base occupies prime cassava field, which is just now yielding the harvest sown last year by the so-called secessionists. While Deputy Commander Channa said the base covers two hectares, and Provincial Governor Sar Cham Rong said it covers one hectare, the territory closed off to villagers is clearly far larger.
Blocked off to those who did the planting, the land will soon be distributed amongst the soldiers living at camp, according to Channa.
“High-level officers are now figuring out how to divide the land among soldiers for their families,” he said, before insisting the land is currently off-limits to all.
“Even though some of the soldiers have recently faced a shortage of food, they do not touch the land.”
Such claims ring somewhat hollow. Strung along the 700-metre path leading to the base lay half-harvested fields – the underbrush is charred, dirt lies in clumps in spots where cassava had recently been pulled.
According to the military, that land is being farmed by “old” villagers – a distinction created by authorities who cleared out the so-called secessionists, saying they were recently migrated squatters.
But the Post spoke with villagers who had been in Pro Ma for five, six, seven and more years, and all said they were blocked from the area. Indeed, in no uncertain terms, a sign posted just before the base reads: “No Entry”.
“They threaten that if anyone goes in to the land, they will be jailed for 15 years,” said Meas Sokthy. The 34-year-old Pro Ma resident previously farmed land in what is now a military-occupied zone. Since the raid, an atmosphere of fear pervades the village.
“Around 30 soldiers have been patrolling in separate areas. They are very cruel,” she said. “One military police officer threatened to kill me if I enter the area.”
“They don’t dare to pressure us in the village, but if a villager tries to enter the area, they will threaten her,” echoed Phat Phin. For Phin, the past year has been an especially arduous one. The mother of five lost her land during the raid. Her husband, a farmer like the rest of his neighbours, was arrested and branded a secessionist – sentenced to 10 months for related charges.
Villagers in Pro Ma had high hopes that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s land-titling program would see them awarded land to which they appear to have legitimate claim; instead, they have seen the process closed to them.
While some will receive titles on a planned social land concession, according to Provincial Governor Cham Rong, that opportunity will be closed off to “the former Bun Ratha group”.
“They cannot get land, because they never had houses on their land,” he said. “They were in that place illegally.”
To the former occupants’ minds, the explanation is far simpler.
“I’ve been farming there for seven years, but the students won’t come measure the land, because the soldiers have taken over,” said Sokthy.
No Man’s Land
Part of the tragedy of Pro Ma is the seeming randomness of the edicts that now govern the village. Those farming a mere 50 metres away from the cordoned off area have been allowed to keep their land and keep their homes. Some have been allowed back in to harvest their cassava, others not.
The commander says he’s under strict orders to only let in “old” villagers. It’s unclear what that distinction is.
Mol Phat, 25, moved here six years before the raid with her husband, father-in-law and brother-in-law. The couple borrowed money to set up a farm inside what would wind up being deemed separatist land; the father and son set their farm just metres down the road.
Since the raid, Phat has been allowed into the military zone exactly once and never permitted access to her three hectares of land. To make ends meet, Phat collects cassava for a neighbouring farmer on a plot located within earshot of her own farm.
“I don’t know why some have gotten in and not others. My neighbour, for instance, can’t get back to her farm either, but some others have,” said Phat.
The fallout of the raid has proved challenging. Ducking into the shade of the small wooden house she now shares with her father-in-law and brother-in-law, Phat cautiously ticks off the problems she has since faced.
“My husband grew quite angry after we lost the land. We have no farm, no money, and we owed money on the land. So he fled to Thailand to find another job,” said Phat. “He’s been gone around two months now, and I haven’t heard from him since.”
Standing nearby, her 68-year-old father-in-law, Thanh Sambouk, interjects. “I’m not sure about other people, but for my family, this situation has caused real problems.”