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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Soldiers, civilians win state land after threats

Soldiers, civilians win state land after threats

After sub-division II of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) in O'Pong and 1,000

villagers in O'Marnoh, 45 km north of Siem Reap, threatened bloodshed to defend Forestry

Administration land they occupy against confiscation orders, Prime Minister Hun Sen

on May 16 overrode the courts and ordered that the land be given to them.

He appeared to have reversed his own instruction to provincial and municipal governors

on April 10 to seize back all illegally occupied state land by April 30.

His order to recover state lands follows a report that over 200,000 hectares of state-owned

forested land had been illegally occupied during the previous year. Siem Reap, Banteay

Meanchey, Kandal, Kampong Thom and Kampong Speu were reported to be the worst-affected

provinces. Most of the encroachment was blamed on land speculators.

Nine verdicts of Siem Reap court issued in March and April, 2006, ordered the seizure

of 3,433 hectares of the farmland from soldiers, and from civilians in several villages

in the T'bang, Ta Run, Khnar Sonday, Ream and Ta Ek communes of Banteay Srei district,

Siem Reap province, according to a document obtained by the Post on May 14.

According to news reports, Hun Sen said on May 16 that villagers and soldiers in

the Banteay Srei area had been occupying the land for many years, so they should

keep it.

Un Vong, district governor of Banteay Srei, and Chhum Kheng, commander of Sub-division

II of the RCAF, said the Forest Administration had accused villagers and soldiers

of cutting down forests and grabbing land.

Kheng said his army unit moved into the area in January, 2005, and occupied public

land at the order of the RCAF.

"The verdicts [ordering seizure of occupied land] would have affected the living

conditions of soldiers' families and I would not allow anyone to take this land unless

there is an order from the RCAF," Kheng told the Post. "I think the verdicts

of the court were irregular and I suspect there were business deals between high-ranking

government officials and the rich."

Vong said all the trees on the disputed land had been cut down in 1992 and 1993 when

the land was under the control of the Forestry Administration. Around the year 2000,

villagers helped themselves to plots of cleared land of between half a hectare and

two hectares each for planting rice and jackfruit.

"I became district governor on March 13, 1999. When I took on my job, the forest

had already been logged and the area covered by grass and scrub," said Vong,

who has acquired 39 hectares of land grazing cows and buffalo that the court ordered

seized.

"There were only 350 families when I came and now there are 1,270 families living

in the area and a road and school under the development of an NGO and the commune

council.

"I think the government should understand that if the villagers cannot farm

because of the verdicts, they will die."

The Post went to O'Marnoh and Ta Pen villages in Banteay Srei district on May 13-14

and found jackfruit trees and mango trees more than 1-meter high. Villagers said

the Forestry Administration had stuck court eviction orders on their houses and plantations.

Hay Sokunmalay, one of the villagers in Ta Pen village of T'bang commune, said he

had planted jackfruit trees and mango trees on two hectares and the Forestry Administration

was trying to evict him from his house and plantation, accusing him of illegally

occupying forestry land.

"I came in 1997 and there were no trees left; I cleared land for my plantation

and I came to live here before the law was established," said Sokunmalay. "The

court accused me of destroying the forest and grabbing land, but when I arrived here

there was no forest: it was a field with grass. Why didn't the Forestry Administration

come and ask me to leave at that time [in 1997]?"

Hear Lay, 42, another villager, also faced confiscation of two hectares she had been

farming.

"Where can I go?" she said. "If they come to take my land, I will

die to protect it," Lay said. "If they come to arrest me and put me in

jail, I will go if they give me food."

She said her husband has no job and she has to feed two children. She depends on

her plantation and chickens and ducks, provided an uncertain income.

"I cannot say how much money I make; sometimes I cannot make even 100 riel a

day." Lay said.

Doung An, 45, the commune chief of Khnar Sonday, said the allocation of land to villagers

had not followed a legal process and there was no master plan.

"We approved the land for villagers according to their request," An said.

"The development in the communes followed the request of the people in the villages.

"The villagers will die if their land were to be taken," he said. "I

think the government must consider this."

Vong and An told reporters that they would resign their current positions if they

cannot protect the interests of the villagers.

They said they had distributed land already cleared of forest to villagers to improve

their living conditions.

The court verdicts ordering the return of the lands to the Forestry Administration

were posted on houses and trees in Banteay Srei district of Siem Reap just a few

weeks after Hun Sen issued a directive on April 10, to the provincial and municipal

governors across the country to take thorough action against land grabbing.

In his directive Hun Sen instructed governors to immediately use the power of the

state and issue orders no later than April 31, 2006, to seize back all state land

that had been illegally occupied.

The directive gave 30 days to individuals to file appeals against seizure. If there

was no complaint the provincial governors and municipality were to send a report

to the National Authority for Resolving Land Disputes (NARLD) and the National Committee

for Prevention, Elimination, and Crackdown on Land and Forest Grabbing.

The new NARLD, composed of 45 senior members from the three main political parties,

met in March, but has yet to make much impression. Land disputes are widespread across

the country.

Eng Chhay Eang, former secretary general of Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and a member of

NARLD, told the Post on May 8 that the NARLD has had only one meeting since it was

formed.

"Since the NARLD was established, I have found there is no mechanism set up

to resolve land disputes yet," Eang said.

The Economic Institute of Cambodia (EIC) issued a report in April 2006 saying that

land continues to be a primary productive asset as more than 85 percent of Cambodia's

population lives in rural areas and directly depends on natural resources, agriculture,

and connected activities for their livelihoods.

Lack of clearly defined property rights, which often leads to land grabbing and conflicts,

demand for agricultural land and land speculation, have contributed to putting natural

resources under growing pressure, the EIC report said. "Illegal logging, forest

encroachment and land grabbing are still coming to light despite the Prime Minister's

repeated warnings."

The EIC wrote that over the past six months, land disputes have been one of the dominant

issues in the media.

Acknowledging these as serious issues which need to be resolved immediately, the

Prime Minister declared the government's commitment to combating illegal land encroachment,

the report said.

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