Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Battambang villagers stand firm in land dispute with local officials

Battambang villagers stand firm in land dispute with local officials

Battambang villagers stand firm in land dispute with local officials

VICTIMS OF EVICTIONS

Local housing rights group Sahmakum Teang Tnaut estimates that more than 120,000 Phnom Penh residents have been the victims of forced evictions from their homes, the counterpart to a recent spate of land disputes in rural areas of the Kingdom.

VILLAGE representatives in Battambang province's Kdol Tahen commune held a meeting Thursday to discuss a long-standing dispute over 200 hectares of land, which they claim has been stolen and cleared by commune and district officials.

"Neither the village or commune chief are on the people's side," Keo Choeun, a Kdol Tahen commune councillor and people's representative, said Thursday.

He said that last month commune officials "conspired" with the governor of Bavel district to seize land belonging to the villagers, using tractors to clear villagers' rice fields and making threats towards villagers to prevent them from entering their fields.

"The main purpose of today's meeting with the people was to unite as a community and strengthen ourselves to be brave enough to farm in our rice fields," he said, adding that 48 families had been affected by the dispute.

"Five hectares was distributed to each family in 1998, [a transfer] that was authorised by local officials at the time."

Keo Choeun said that since complaints had been lodged with authorities in Phnom Penh and local rights group Adhoc, the clearing had been suspended.

But he said only a few villagers were brave enough to farm the land and that many feared for their "personal security".

"These people are not greedy.... They just rely on the land for their livelihood, and they have dared to devote themselves to protecting their rice fields despite personal threats," he said.

Confusion over land grants

Bavel district Governor Tim Dareth told the Post Thursday that the villagers were mistaken about the transfer of land in 1998.

"I deny the allegations made by the people, accusing us of stealing their land. It was they who are guilty of stealing the land," he said. He indicated that the rice fields, originally controlled by the Khmer Rouge, were distributed once the Khmer Rouge had dissolved in 1998 - but that it was district authorities who received the land.

Heng Say Hong, a provincial investigator for local rights group Adhoc, said he had received a complaint from the villagers and that he would investigate it shortly. 

"I haven't yet conducted an investigation into the case, as there are a lot of other land dispute cases [in the province]," he said.

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