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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Villagers stymied by armed land-grabbers

Villagers stymied by armed land-grabbers

Kabal Speen: Before armed men took villagers' land and bulldozed away their crops

R

esidents of Kabal Speen village, camped outside the National Assembly protesting

the theft of their land, say life in their village is like living in a prison without

walls.

The villagers settled Kabal Speen, on the outskirts of Poipet, in 1992. They built

houses, cleared mines, and planted rice.

Then in January 1999 the District Chief told the villagers their land was being confiscated

and ordered them to move immediately.

The villagers presented land titles they had acquired in 1998, but these were dismissed

by the District Chief as no longer valid.

The villagers stayed put until April 1999 when 200 armed men, under the command of

General Tea Sout, entered Kabal Speen and ordered the villagers out. Just before

harvest bulldozers came and tore up their fields.

Rach Somaly, a mother of four, said: "General Sout told the villagers, 'Go ahead

and file your complaints. I don't care. The guys at the top level are my friends.'"

Somaly, along with her husband, have been camped outside the National Assembly for

nearly two months in a determined effort to receive justice.

Kabal Speen: After armed men took villagers' land and bulldozed away their crops

"It is scary living in the village," she said. "It is like the Khmer

Rouge time. They have put a fence around our land and they threaten us with weapons."

But General Sout's proclamation that he could take their land with impunity may prove

correct.

The villagers have sent written pleas for help to the National Assembly, a variety

of ministries, and the Council of Ministers. So far they have been all but ignored.

The problems of Somaly and her neighbors are common in Cambodia, but new land laws

being drafted now might provide justice to Cambodia's poor and powerless.

Shaun Williams, Oxfam GB's Cambodia Land Study Coordinator, said he expects the draft

of new laws will be reviewed by the Council of Minister in the early May, before

being forwarded to the National Assembly for a vote.

Civil society organizations have been pushing five main issues, said Williams: better

stewardship of state-owned property, ground rules about how concessions will be issued,

legal rights for land occupants without title, clearer land succession laws that

do not discriminate against women, and the protection of communal land rights of

ethnic minorities.

Legal Aid Cambodia (LAC), a local NGO providing legal assistance to the poor, said

they now represent 29,600 people involved in land disputes.

In May 1999, LAC established a special unit to handle land dispute cases.

George Cooper, a legal consultant at LAC, said: "Our work in this area began

just about the time of a big upsurge in protests by people who finally felt secure

enough to fight against the land-grabbing."

A lot of LAC cases involve large numbers of families confronting powerful people

who have claimed their land. Because these people are influential, they are able

to slow down the judicial or mediation process, he said.

Yim Simene, a lawyer working for LAC, said the organization either represents their

clients before the courts, or they act as mediators.

Even having a title does not guarantee the poor that their land will not be taken,

said Simene. It is common for land title offices to issue multiple titles to the

same parcel of land.

In court cases where people can each present a title to the land under dispute, the

one who can pay the judge the most money usually wins, she said.

Cooper expects a provision to be included in the new laws that will allow Cambodians

already living on land to have an automatic claim to its title.

"If this provision is accepted into law, then millions of people in Cambodia

who have no rights to their land, will have rights."

Simene said the draft land laws, if accepted, will also provide lawyers more tools

to use in court when defending their clients' rights to land.

She warned, however, it will still be up to judges to apply the law and reject the

lure of money and intimidation by powerful people.

An Eng Thong, President of Cambodia's Bar Association, said the new laws might be

good, but he doesn't expect them to end land dispute problems.

"In order to solve these problems, judges and local authorities have to do their

jobs properly. They have to respect and obey the law and give real justice to the

people," said Thong.

Koy Neam, a lawyer who is a member of the NGOIO Land Law Working Group, said the

challenge will be to implement the reforms once they are signed into law.

"Unless we have an honest mechanism to verify the fact of the possession, then

we still have a problem," said Neam.

Sitting on the baking footpath across from the National Assembly, Somaly told the

Post she wants to ask Prime Minister Hun Sen two questions: "Can we have our

land back? Can we have something in compensation? If the Government needs the land,

okay, but please give us land in return."

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