The authorities have denied claims that owners of paddy fields situated within the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve in Kampong Chhnang province’s Boribor district have been forced to sell their land.

The villagers alleged that certain traders have been spreading fear among them, warning that the government would seize their land and not provide compensation if they don’t sell.

Speaking to The Post on Tuesday, Sum Sokhun, who owns 2ha in the flooded forest, said many families have been persuaded to sell their land “which was passed on by their ancestors” by traders since early this year.

“Just listening to the traders’ few words, the villagers were in a state of panic. The whole village sold their land except me."

“I am in a wait-and-see mode . . . I beg the government to be compensated when they decide to take my land. However small the amount is, lest it be nothing. At least I have my principles,” Sokhun said.

A directive to protect the flooded forests in and around Tonle Sap river in six provinces was issued in the past after the government had found “acute intrusions” in the wetlands which posed a negative impact on the natural ecosystems and resources.

Those were, as some parties alleged, “the results from collusion between some authorities and companies to clear the wetlands to allow the construction of resorts, et cetera”.

Sam Chankea, the provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said the villagers were forced to sell their paddy fields at prices between $800 and $2,000 per hectare.

“I am worried that, because these residents live in a remote area, they might not have the habits to learn about the law,” he said.

However, Chankea doubted that there was corruption committed by the higher-level authorities connected to the incident.

The land buying and selling activities go through to the lower-level authorities, he noted.

The director of the provincial agricultural department Nhin Hun said he was unaware of the incident. This was echoed by Ly La, the head of the provincial fisheries administration who also said he was unaware of the matter.

Hun said the farmers were only allowed to cultivate the land and not sell it. “I’ve told them not to sell their plots and that no one will confiscate them.”

He said he would look into the case and find the ones who allegedly intimated the villagers, adding however that he was not convinced such an incident took place. “If it really happened, buyers and sellers would face the law,” he said.

Boribor district governor Khoun Sarom shared a similar sentiment, saying: “There was no one seeking to buy the land. If there is, it might be a case of fraud, because I am very strict about it [overseeing land purchases] and cannot be careless.”

Chankea stressed that the authorities ought to put in place measures to stop the fear-mongering. “We ask that the government take action against crafty officials or unscrupulous traders to defend its honour,” he said.