M ORE than 170 Muslim families have fled their homes in a remote part of Pursat province after Forestry Administration rangers tore down houses and allegedly threatened to kill residents who stayed.
In mid-September, several provincial rangers armed with AK-47s arrived at Stung Thmei and Tumpor villages in Pramaoy commune, Veal Veng district, and destroyed 42 flimsy houses and surrounding farms, said Math Ousman, an Islamic member of the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and second vice chief of Chrang Chamrah I commune in Russey Keo district.
Ousman has helped establish the community since 1999 and alleged the forced eviction was the result of political intimidation, but a CPP parliamentarian denied the claim, saying the families were occupying a conservation area.
The destruction of houses came two weeks after a visit to the area by Sman Teath, an MP with the Cambodian People's Party (CPP), said Ousman, who was unsure of the exact dates.
He alleged that Teath told local authorities not to allow the Muslims - who Ousman said mostly support the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) - to occupy the land.
"Veal Veng district governor Uon Yang advised me in a friendly way to give up the SRP and asked me to walk in one way with him, to make a deal [in exchange] for the land for those Khmer Muslims," Ousman said. "I told the district governor that I came to make better living conditions, which is not a political issue."
However, Teath denied politics was behind the eviction.
"The district governor came to ask me to help those Khmer Muslims and not remove them," Teath told the Post on October 6. "I made an investigation in the area and found that they grabbed the land in the wildlife conservation of Phnom Samkoh which was against the law."
"Even if I am a CPP parliamentarian, I cannot help them because the conservation areas are under the authority of the Forestry Administration," he said.
Teath also alleged that Ousman took $10 from each person in the Pursat community to find land for them to settle.
According to a map published by the Web Site www.mekong-protected-areas.org with information attributed to the Ministry of Environment, the villages in question appear to fall well within the Phnom Samkoh protected area.
A protected area is defined by the World Conservation Union as "an area of land and/or sea especially dedicated to the protection and maintenance of biological diversity, and of natural and associated cultural resources, and managed through legal or other effective means."
It is unclear whether the settlement of the Muslim families breached rules for managing protected areas in Cambodia.
Muslims began migrating to the fertile, but landmine-strewn farming lands north of the Cardamom Mountains and approximately 30km from the Thai border in 1999, assisted by Ousman.
Until the ranger incident last month, residents had maintained good relations with local authorities at the commune and district level, Ousman said.
He admitted that the actions of the community were akin to the land-grabbing often criticized by the opposition party, but said the community had taken over the land for housing and farming to improve their living conditions.
"At first I came for fishing, but since then the local authorities, village chief and villagers suggested to me that if I am really poor and wanted to come here they promised to help and give land for houses and farming," Ousman said.
Heng Chanthourn, SRP's provincial representative for Pursat, said people had migrated to the area after the 1998 national elections.
Due to a shortage of farming land in their previous locations, residents of the two villages gave up their former houses in several provinces and moved to Pursat to occupy the land, Chanthourn said.
"I think the government has to use their conscience to allocate unused land for poor Cambodian people rather than take advantage of the situation to persuade them to join the ruling party in exchange for the land," he said.
Local human rights group Licadho said it will send a team to investigate the case on October 8.