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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Villagers, troops vie for farmland near border conflict zone

Villagers, troops vie for farmland near border conflict zone

Troops set up camp on farmland they claim is owned by the military, which local residents say has deprived them of their livelihood

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A report released last week by international corruption watchdog Global Witness noted the increasing involvement of RCAF soldiers in the “misappropriation of public assets”, claiming a heavy army presence at five of six mining sites surveyed by the group.

More than a hundred families in Banteay Meanchey province fear for the loss of 55 hectares of farmland in a dispute with border troops who have set up camp on the land, claiming that it is collectively owned by the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), residents said.

"They have cleared the land and destroyed our crops and rice field, and several soldiers have placed shelters on the land," said Yem Kimlor, a representative of Banteay Meanchey's Preah Netr Preah community. "Now, people are frightened to enter the farmland."

One officer who spoke to the Post claimed that RCAF granted the land to local residents following the end of the civil war in 1998, but that recent tensions on the border had necessitated its reoccupation in December.

"It is not right that we took the land from the people, but it is former collective land, for which we have had legal titles and recognition from the government since 1979," said Son Shea, who declined to give his rank.

We have had legal titles and recognition from the government since 1979.

"We allowed the people to farm on the empty land when it was not needed, but now we need the land for deploying troops to protect the border's integrity."

He said the land would be used for a troop encampment, tanks and artillery, and he challenged villagers to present legal titles to the land.

Preah Netr Preah commune chief Hong Huoy admitted villagers were never given titles by district authorities. He said he had summoned both parties to a meeting Monday to discuss the issue.

Seeking a compromise

Although no troops came to the meeting, which was attended by around 40 villagers, Hong Huoy said he was still determined to find out whether the military deployment was genuine and to find a way to let the villagers continue farming the land.

"I have seen a letter from the general commander redeploying mobile troops from Battambang to Banteay Meanchey during the border dispute with Thailand in 2008," he said, but added that he had would try to prevent the land from being sold because it "belongs to the people".

But Soam Chankea, a coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, said that "a troop camp shouldn't be built near the people's village, since it will threaten people's safety", insisting that the camp not obstruct residents' farming activities.

"[The villagers] have no other place to live and they depend on the land to feed themselves," he said.

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