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Community upset by land clearing arrests

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Community members held a protest to demand the release of two people charged for clearing protected land. Photo supplied

Community upset by land clearing arrests

The Ratanakkiri Provincial Court has charged and sent two people to jail in connection with clearing forest land at the Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary in Lumphat district’s Seda commune, leading to outrage from relatives and more than 70 community members.

Ratanakkiri Provincial Court spokesman Keo Pisoth on Sunday identified the two accused as Um Thea, and Ben Chheang, both 55, and from Kaleng commune.

He said they were charged and remanded by Judge San Bunthoeun on Saturday.

“The judge has already ruled, but I don’t remember the article and the charges against the two suspects. I cannot tell the press without knowing it clearly,” he said, noting he did not have the documents in-hand and was not at his office.

Ratanakkiri provincial environment department director Phon Khemrin declined to comment on Sunday.

His deputy Prin Sambo was quoted by the Ratanakkiri Provincial Department of Information on Friday as saying the arrests of the two suspects were made as Khemrin led rangers to patrol the sanctuary on Thursday when they spotted the two clearing forest land.

He said the rangers immediately arrested and took them to the Provincial Hall, after which they were sent to the provincial court.

Chheang’s son Ly Heang, 25, said his mother had exchanged 5ha for a Honda 2019 motorbike with an indigenous person Um Thea who claimed to own the land.

The exchange was a year ago, he said, but the farmland had some bushes that had not yet been ploughed.

Over the past few months, his mother has been working on clearing the bush and putting a fence around the land. Then on Thursday, she was arrested.

“The owner of the land, Um Thea, told my mother before the exchange that it is his ancestral land and that he had the right to sell it. He even guaranteed that nothing would happen, but now there is so much trouble.

“I urge the court to release my mother because she does not understand what is happening and I want the court to clarify this case,” he said.

Adhoc rights group coordinator for Ratanakkiri province Din Khony said he has looked into the case and found that the land in question has been cleared and cultivated, as well as traded among villagers for years.

But now, environmental officials arrested the latest owner.

“I urge the court and relevant officials to reinvestigate the case. There may be irregularities because there was an agreement to exchange the land. They are the last owners to suffer because they did not know the history of this land.

“People have been farming there for years, but no authority has come to ban or claim the land as part of wildlife sanctuaries,” he said.

Lumphat district governor Nu The declined to comment on Sunday while Lun Sopheap, the Ratanakkiri provincial deputy governor, could not be reached.

However, Sopheap was quoted by the Ratanakkiri Provincial Information Department on Friday that more than 70 community members had gathered to protest the arrests and demand the two accused be released.

He told them he would be coordinating to help find a solution with the Ratanakkiri Provincial Court to the best of its ability. He then asked the protesters to return home.

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