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Bunong seek burial grounds justice

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Six representatives of the Bunong people sue commune and village chiefs over graveyard in Mondulkiri province. SUPPLIED

Bunong seek burial grounds justice

Six representatives of the Bunong indigenous community have filed a complaint with the Mondulkiri Provincial Court seeking an investigation into their commune and village chiefs, who they alleged had turned a blind eye to infringement on their traditional burial grounds.

Kre Sora, a member of the community, said she and five other representatives filed the complaint on February 21 against Spean Meanchey commune chief Kuch Meng Thou and O’Spean village chief Chin Sileap, whose “inaction” had led to the encroachment.

Sora recalled that in September last year, a group of workers who claimed to represent the landowners erected a fence around 11ha of indigenous land in the commune’s O’ Spean village in Sen Monorom town.

She said that when they could not discover who had ordered the fences to be built, they complained to the local authorities, but to no avail.

She then filed a complaint with district authorities, who referred the case back to the local level.

“We don’t know who has occupied the land. We have asked the village and commune authorities to find out who took it, but they said they did not know the owner and couldn’t find out who it was. We have filed this complaint because it has been many months since we first sought help,” she said.

The representatives said the cemetery had been used by more than 70 families for the burial of their ancestors for many generations, but the indigenous community never formally claimed the land. In 2021, people were clearing some of the land so they built a small fence around the cemetery, only to see them demolished, they said.

“We want help to find the person who seized the land – or whoever sold the land – so we can meet them and follow our tradition. He must buy us cattle or buffalo and pay compensation for dismantling the fence and clearing the land,” she added.

The complaint asks the court to take legal action and return the land to the community, reading: “Let the prosecutor open an investigation and prosecute the perpetrators in accordance with the law. Please confiscate the cemetery from them for the people to use and let the perpetrators perform the traditional rituals and pay $100,000 in compensation.”

Provincial court spokesman Seav Ngy Chhean confirmed on February 22 that the court had received the case but had not taken any action yet. Because the complaint was just filed, time was needed to refer it to the prosecutor’s office.

Kreung Tola, a coordinator for the provincial Indigenous People Network, said that filing a complaint was the correct course of action because there were laws stating that the authorities could not ignore requests for help.

“The activities of the village and commune authorities show that they are not interested in fulfilling their duties,” he said.

He added that the authorities in this case appeared to be more interested in collecting their salaries than solving people’s problems.

Spean Meanchey commune chief Meng Thou said it was not possible for people to force the authorities to resolve an issue as quickly as they wished, as the authorities needed time to investigate the case.

He said he had always tried to assist the people of his commune and had never ignored their concerns. In this case, he said the Bunong had left the land vacant for many years and that he had never seen them observing any traditional rituals on it.

“The owners of the land neglected it. Perhaps now that land prices are rising, they want to get it back. Of course, I will always try to protect my people. If they are right about the burials, we will take care of them,” he said.

O’Spean village chief Sileap said she did not know where the cemetery was. If the Bunong provided that information, the authorities could easily inspect the area and that would help them make a decision. Because the people did not have documentation for the land, the case was more complicated, she added.

“If people had been buried there for a long time, they should have obtained documents by now. It is possible they are claiming it is their ancestor’s cemetery because the land is very valuable now. This is a difficult case for us, perhaps they have put pressure on us because a broker is prepared to buy the land,” she said.

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