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‘Land for vote’ deal backfires

Chhoeun Yi, 54, at her home in Preah Vihear province’s Kulen district last week. She says her land was seized in 2011 by Forestry Administration officials
Chhoeun Yi, 54, at her home in Preah Vihear province’s Kulen district last week. She says her land was seized in 2011 by Forestry Administration officials. VIREAK MAI

‘Land for vote’ deal backfires

Before casting their ballots, residents in three communes in Kulen district carefully mulled their options. On one hand, many have found themselves locked in a land dispute with the government – forced to farm their land in secret from the forestry administration. On the other, the provincial governor had sworn to solve their dispute after the election – if the right party won.

And so, with some trepidation, the villagers cast their ballots almost uniformly for the CPP. Since then, they have been waiting and growing increasingly angry.

“In this commune the CPP won, so I hope to get a good result. But if they do not settle it, I will protest in Phnom Penh,” said Chhean Leab, 35.

Leab is one of 64 families in Kulen Tbong, Kulen Choeung and Srayong communes who are fighting for ownership of nine hectares of land. Since 2006, the families have farmed the land without issue.

But two years ago, forestry officers began hassling them, claiming they had no right to use the land. Nearly every day, forestry officers would drive by, checking out whether anyone was working the land.

“People living in the area now farm secretly at nighttime. No one does it openly,” he said.

According to Chhoeun Yi, the land was seized in 2011 by forestry officials who ordered villagers to stop building homes or cultivating the land while its ownership remained in question.

Speaking inside a house whose roof is only partially thatched because of money woes, Yi said she had struggled to deal with the seizure. And, for her, the past month has meant living with uncertainty.

“We now live to wait for the governor’s promise because he had said that soon after the election he would settle it,” she said.

Before the campaign season began, local authorities came three times to expel Yi and 24 other families from the area. Most stayed, purely out of a lack of options. Since July, things began improving, as local officials sought to placate residents during the lead-up to the campaign.

“We still farm with fear. Previously we tilled but we were not allowed to plant. When we did it secretly at night, the seedlings would be pulled out during the day,” said Yi, whose sons – like many young men in this village – long ago left for Thailand to seek better work.

Villagers who say they have no funds to build shelter for their homes because of land disputes inhabit a partially thatched house in Preah Vihear province’s Kulen district last week
Villagers who say they have no funds to build shelter for their homes because of land disputes inhabit a partially thatched house in Preah Vihear province’s Kulen district last week. VIREK MAI

Yi’s neighbour, 32-year-old Srey Soeun, is one of those who have considered moving. He’s resisted only out of “fear of being cheated”.

But with his land in dispute, Soeun has grown increasingly anxious as he waits for a resolution from the governor. The deadline has already come and gone, he said.

“The governor had promised that soon after the election he would immediately exchange the land for 65 families without us losing a single inch of land, and he would do so no later than August. It has been a month and so far we have not seen anything. I think the promise was made for us to vote only for them,” he added.

In April, volunteer students came to measure the villagers’ land, but forestry officials turned the group away, telling them it was slated to be a plant nursery, villagers said.

“We do not want anything other than the authorities to provide land titles for us and let us have the right to live on this land as people in other areas do,” Soeun said.

Srayong commune chief Pen Lam confirmed the villagers’ account, saying he had repeatedly asked for intervention.

“I handled it according to the procedures, asking the district, province and ministry, but in the end no one came to measure the land,” he said.

In June, the villagers went to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s home to deliver a letter begging intervention. Within two weeks both his cabinet and parliament had sent notes ordering officials to resolve the dispute.

Governor Om Mara insisted that a land dispute settlement committee was studying how to fulfil the request, and that “it won’t take long”.

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