More than 400 families in Preah Vihear province submitted a petition to a group of NGOs and the UN yesterday, seeking assistance in their battle with the government over 3,555 hectares of protected land that sits within the Kulen Prom-Tep Wildlife Sanctuary.
The involved families claim to have cultivated the land since 1993, and that student land titling volunteers deployed by Prime Minister Hun Sen before the 2013 national elections measured land for them, though titles were never issued.
Earlier this year, the families were banned from building houses in the disputed area and forced to stop crop cultivation by officials from the Ministry of Environment.
“We want the hill [located in the disputed area], but environment officials did not let us live and farm there,” said Sou Sun, 47, one of three villager representatives who spoke to Post reporters on Tuesday.
He added that fellow villager Sut Chhoeuy, who is disabled, was arrested and detained for a day for allegedly leading 200 other people in illegal land grabbing.
Sun and Chhoeuy are two of six representatives to have been summonsed to court following attempts by some of their group to enter and live on the land.
Chhoeuy said that local environment officials had forced them to leave the hill and had threatened to burn nearly 2 tonnes of rice and straw bales loaded onto 10 tractors.
“I pled with them to give me 10 days to employ villagers to take the rice out because I am disabled and cannot haul it myself,” he said.
He added that they were allowed to move the rice, but the straw was burned by environment officials.
Ear Sokha, director of the provincial environment department, denied that his officials burned the straw, saying that the villagers had only been warned to remove their possessions.
He added that while Chhoeuy was indeed called to their office for questioning, he had never been detained.
According to Sokha, most of the land owners in the wildlife sanctuary are recent migrants persuaded by timber brokers to move in expressly to clear the land, despite interventions by environment officials.
“Recently, there is a movement to encroach on the protected area,” he said. “It is against the law. If they get the land, they will share and sell it,” he added, confirming that the environment department has filed a complaint to court.