An ethnic Phnong community in Kratie province’s Snuol district has accused local officials and soldiers of grabbing over 1,000 hectares of community forest and threatening the lives of local villagers for years, with the rights group Adhoc yesterday saying they would take the case to provincial authorities.
Community leader Seang Phet, 66, said that since 2011, some 136 families have sought to preserve the 3,036 hectares of community forest, but that in that time over a third of it has been taken over by powerful interests.
“Our forest land has not been registered yet, but over 1,000 hectares were already grabbed. The rich and the powerful used excavators to clear [land] and build boundaries for private property without approval from the community,” Phet said, noting that the forestland was either turned into plantation or sold off.
Yay Samrith, another community representative, said that in addition to extorting money from timber and firewood haulers, soldiers in the district also engage in land grabbing and threaten any community members trying to oppose them.
A soldier she could only identify as “Bros” “warned us not to be active, or else we would experience what happened to Kem Ley”, she claimed, referring to the political analyst who was slain in July 2016.
Samrith said that a local wealthy man, Leng Oun, was also involved.
Snuol District Deputy Governor Sam Nal said he had never met Oun but had in fact measured the land he cleared in 2016 and told him, through an intermediary, not to expand further, although he could not recall how much land it was. Nal also said he was unaware of land grabbing by soldiers. Contact information for Oun could not be obtained as of press time.
Since 2016, the community has filed written complaints including letters and petitions to local authorities, the National Assembly and several ministries, but their complaints remain unaddressed. In May, the community’s lawyer, Sam Chamroeun, an attorney from the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, filed a complaint to the provincial court, which went ignored.
Reached yesterday Chea Sopheak, the provincial court’s spokesman, said he was unaware of the lawsuit and declined further comment.
On December 29, Chamroeun filed a complaint to Adhoc, and on Saturday the rights group sent provincial investigator Be Vanny. Reached yesterday, Vanny identified soldiers by the names of “Chem, Uk Sophean, Thun and Phat Lao” as culprits in land grabbing.
“It is an injustice for the community when their forest was grabbed but there is no solution,” Vanny said.
Kratie Provincial Hall spokesman Pen Linat referred questions to Administrative Director Sreng Sopheap, who referred questions back to the district authorities.
Yen Sovann, Snuol district military commander, said he was unaware of soldiers involved in land grabbing but said he would look into the allegation.