The Preah Sihanouk Provincial Administration and the O’Oknha Heng commune authority are investigating a land dispute involving 500 families living in O’Oknha Heng and O’Ta Sek villages that recently erupted into violence. In their initial conclusion, the authorities said the villagers are not squatters as alleged.

Provincial hall spokesman Kheang Phearum told The Post that the authorities had divided their investigation between two separate but related issues, with the first being the dispute over ownership or use of land and the second being the violence that had taken place against the villagers.

The violence erupted when a group of people working for an outside claimant to the land attacked a group of villagers residing there on December 20.

According to Phearum, the provincial administration had already assigned a joint working group to conduct a thorough investigation of the disputed land issue on September 11, with instructions to summarise the survey report for the provincial leadership who would then make a decision as to its resolution.

“The provincial administration is not calling the people living in O’Oknha Heng commune squatters, we must not use that word, it is a very serious accusation,” Phearum said.

Phearum said that in order to avoid any further incidents of violence, the provincial administration had requested that the parties involved, including the current residents, maintain the status quo for the time being.

He also noted that any changes or activities undertaken in regards to the land by the parties to the dispute would only hinder the investigation with added complications at this point.

The provincial administration also requested that all stakeholders remain patient and await the results of the investigation as the inquiry should be completed soon.

O’Oknha Heng commune chief Kao Leng said the authorities did not consider the more than 500 families living in the commune to have occupied the land illegally or to have ever intentionally caused any disorder or confusion regarding the status of the land in order to acquire it.

“Whoever says that the people in this commune are squatters don’t know what they are talking about. These people have been living here for many years. They shouldn’t be called that,” he said.

Touch Ay, 57, was walking to buy food at the market when she passed by the concrete house surrounded by five jackfruit trees where the violence between the men sent by the people now claiming to own the land and some of the villagers took place on December 20.

She said she had been living in the village for the past 27 years and that there had never been any prior land disputes within the community, a place where she said people had always lived together peacefully and in solidarity.

She said the peaceful way of life long enjoyed by the residents had been interrupted over the past three months when someone named Pheun Phalla started making claims of ownership of the land. She said Phalla’s men began harassing the villagers and aggressively confronting them when they would attempt to construct any new buildings.

The December 20 violence occurred when a group of about 10 of Phalla’s men came around to watch the villager’s activities and intimidate them. When they saw that some villagers were building new houses they ordered them to stop, and when their demands were ignored, they allegedly assaulted the villagers and demolished the partially completed structures.

Provincial police chief Chuon Narin said the police and prosecutors are currently searching for eight suspects who are accused of assaulting several villagers and of having used weapons when doing so.

“I’ve alerted all relevant officials in the area and requested their assistance in finding those responsible for the attack. We have to thoroughly investigate these crimes and apprehend everyone who perpetrated any violence or caused damage to other people’s property,” Narin said.

As of December 23, The Post had not been able to contact Phalla for comment regarding the December 20 incident and his claims of land ownership in O’Oknha Heng commune.

However, Phearum confirmed that the provincial administration had received a letter from Phalla requesting a land allocation in the commune three months ago. He noted that Phalla had yet to appear there in person to pursue these claims directly and had so far only sent representatives to act in his place.

According to Kong Sokha, a 62-year-old resident of O’Oknha Heng village, the dispute stems from events that occurred over two decades ago.

Sokha’s background lends credibility to his version of the events that led to the present dispute. In summary, he told The Post that in 1979 he was the vice-president of the Preah Sihanouk Youth League and in 1998 became an office chief at the provincial Department of Environment, where he remained until his retirement about six years ago.

He recalled that from 1991 to 1993 there was a private company operating in the area owned by a Taiwanese land trader. The land trader had at one point approached the village chief with an offer to buy hundreds of hectares of land in this area.

His plans were interrupted on November 1, 1993, by a royal decree that established the area as part of the Ream National Park. The park covers 21,000ha with four communes – Ream, O’Oknha Heng, Boeung Ta Prohm and O’Chrov.

Sokha explained to The Post that O’Oknha Heng commune is made up in part by two villages – O’Ta Sek and O’Oknha Heng – both of which are considered to be within the publicly held portion of the Preah Sihanouk Ream National Park. He said many of the villagers had been living on the land as far back as 1993 and some of them had taken up residence there even earlier than that.

“In this community, people have the right to harvest from the forest and they have always lived here in this manner with the full acknowledgement of the authorities that they did so legally,” he said.

After the park was established in 1993, people could then only legally sell their land with permission from the village chief and the commune chief, who acted as signatories for the transactions.

Since 1993, the people of these two villages have successfully borrowed at least $10 million from various banks using the land as collateral. The willingness of the banks to lend money to the villagers over the years was a clear indication that the bank recognised the legitimacy of their claims to the land because a clear confirmation of their rights to it had long been established by the village and commune authorities, according to Sokha.

“It is not possible to seriously accuse the people living here of squatting on this land illegally, because they have relied on the land for many years and with full public acknowledgement of their right to do so. The authorities have been well-informed about their presence and they have a valid residence permit through the commune chief for five mandates already,” he said.

The government issued a sub-decree regarding the land in 2017 when the Ministry of Environment requested the allocation of 1,122ha of the land from Ream National Park for use by three villages – O’Oknha Heng, O’Ko Ki, and Smach Deng in Ream commune.

O’Oknha Heng was allocated 99.29ha with the exact boundaries established by GPS coordinates, and the village remains located at those same coordinates today.

“[Provincial governor] Kuoch Chamroeun is currently in charge of the situation and the implementation of the government’s long-term planning. He has assigned a working group to measure land for allocation to more people and the surveyors have gradually been making those measurements,” Sokha said.

“We recognise that the government has taken great care to try and do this the right way, but unfortunately, unscrupulous individuals have now presented themselves as the rightful owners of the land, saying that they had at some point inherited it from the Taiwanese land trader, who they claim had legally purchased it back in 1993. And so now they say they own O’Oknha Heng commune as private land,” he said.