Preah Sihanouk provincial authorities on Sunday sent eight people to court for blocking National Road 4 and using violence against authorities in a land dispute in Prey Nop district’s Bit Traing commune.
Four police officers and two commune security guards sustained injuries when the protesters hurled stones at police on Friday, according to provincial police chief Chuon Narin.
Narin told The Post on Saturday that the protesters blocked the road on Friday with boulders and tree branches before being dispersed. He said police were acting in accordance with the law.
“We cannot let them block the national road. Their act was illegal. We initially asked them to remove all that was blocking traffic, but they were incited to use violence against authorities who were simply keeping public order."
“Now they stay quiet – perhaps they understand their act was illegal. I want them to turn to lawful negotiations instead of causing public disorder. We cannot let anyone affect security,” he said.
Prey Nop district administration deputy director Prum Bunny said the eight were among some 200 people who took to the street after authorities implemented a court ruling ordering the dismantling of a total of 630 cottages illegally built on land owned by others.
Authorities were acting on the complaints of Nhim Yun Srim, Chhay Noy and Keut Sothearara, the rightful landowners.
Bunny, who led joint security forces to dismantle the cottages in Bit Traing commune’s Chamnot Ream village, said authorities have identified the “ringleaders” and are searching for more suspects.
“We’ve captured the activities on camera. Now we are searching for those behind them. We already have enough clues but cannot reveal anything now,” he said.
Having sustained injuries to his left-side ribs and left leg, Bunny said authorities would not tolerate “anarchic” land grabbing.
“Authorities have been soft with them, but we also need to enforce the law although they used violence against us. Whatever they do, they will reap what they sow,” he said.
Provincial administration spokesman Kheang Phearum told The Post on Sunday that authorities have identified the ringleaders behind the land grabbing, who he said hailed from Sihanoukville and other provinces.
“Authorities are still working on the case so we cannot divulge any details now,” he said.
Phearum said some had sneaked in at night to build hundreds of cottages and hired others to guard them.
“In one instance, we went down to dismantle 600 cottages on Wednesday to Friday. They constructed makeshift cottages to encroach on and grab land that rightfully belongs to others,” he said.
Seng Sophy, who claimed to be a resident in Prey Nop district and took part in the protest, said she bought a 600sqm plot of the disputed land last year. Sophy, who has since sold parts of her land to other villagers, acknowledged that the land transactions were not officially recognised by relevant authorities.
“I sold half of my land to people living in Preah Sihanouk province in order for them to help tend to my house and land. I bought the land from people who claimed the land had been granted as a concession for veterans. The seller claimed he was a soldier. He divided the land into small plots for sale,” she said.
Huot Sokhy, another protester whose relatives were held for questioning for using violence against authorities, said he had bought a 300sqm plot at the location before Khmer New Year.
“I am a villager in Prey Nop district’s Andong Thma commune. We did not grab the land, but we bought it from others at a cheap price. The zinc-roofed home I had constructed at a cost of $300 has already been smashed by authorities,” he said.
Cheap Sotheary, provincial coordinator for human rights group Adhoc who had monitored the blocking of National Road 4, said those who had encroached on other people’s land were mostly outsiders from other provinces.
“They [the outsiders] are not familiar to us. Residents in the area told me some of the people came from other provinces in buses and that their land grabbing was well organised. Without a mastermind, they would not dare,” she said.
Sotheary urged people who genuinely need land to request social land concessions.
“If they are landless, they should apply for a social concession for poor people,” she said.
You Veasna, a Cambodia Coalition of Farmer Community (CCFC) representative, said the situation had calmed down following the detention of the eight protesters.
“All of us who live in the province don’t have anything to do with that group. They are outsiders. We are clear with what we do, but they are not. We don’t work with them because we don’t want to be labelled as being part of the same group. Our community does not recognise them because their backgrounds are not clear, while their activities are different from ours,” he said.
Veasna said the group may have been backed by rich and powerful ringleaders.
“We have done some background checks, but we dare not reveal [our findings] now because they are not certain yet. It could have involved some [powerful people] in Phnom Penh and our provincial authorities,” he said without elaborating.
Soeung Saran, executive director of housing rights group Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), declined to comment, saying he did not have representatives in the province.