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Without lawyer, Krom villagers face court trial

Arrest, detention and even an upcoming trial can’t sway 68 Khmer Krom families faced with eviction to give up a bitter land dispute over a bird sanctuary in Takeo province.

After being charged in April with illegally occupying state land, three representatives from Sangkum Meanchey village in Borei Choslar district have been summonsed for a court hearing on Wednesday. But the villagers are eager to postpone what they claim would be an unfair trial.

“We don’t have a lawyer for this case, so we want the court to delay,” Vy Chan, 56, said.

According to the Minority Rights Organisation, the land dispute dates to the early 1990s, when about 100 families relocated from southern Vietnam to unoccupied residential and farming land allocated to them by local officials. But in 2008, new land protection laws established the area that the villagers’ claim as part of an 8,000-hectare wildlife sanctuary.

To get the villagers to leave the protected area, fisheries officials pressed charges against three villagers, including Chan and his brother. In April, the trio were called to court, interrogated and forced to thumbprint a letter rescinding any ownership over the disputed area.

“All the villagers want is to have land for dry season farming that will not disturb the fish spawning in rainy season,” Ang Chanrith, executive director of MIRO, said. “If they are granted this land, it would hugely improve their livelihood.”

According to MIRO, the district governor last month tried to resolve the dispute by offering each family a 2-hectare plot elsewhere, a solution the villagers rejected as it halved their current property. Instead, they sent a letter to the provincial governor last month, requesting that a social land concession provide just enough land “to feed all our families”.

Vann Sophat, a project coordinator for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said to grant the request, the government would have to first reclassify the state land.

“If the government and local authorities are very committed, it does not need to take very long,” Sophat said. “But often, it’s a very complicated, drawn-out process that only translates into land titles after five, six, or even 10 years.”

Meanwhile, Chan said he and his neighbours won’t stop farming.

“Even if I’m in jail, I still want my family to continue working on this land because . . . it should legally be ours,” he said.

The provincial governor could not be reached, while fisheries administration officials hung up on reporters.

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