Ouk Chetana, a 39-year-old mother of two, sits on a bamboo bed in a temporary home after the house she had lived in since 2009 was destroyed by authorities, as the village she shared with some 200 other families was deemed to have encroached on state land.
She speaks of the hopelessness she felt when last year, her brother was arrested and sentenced by Preah Sihanouk provincial court to five years behind bars.
His crime? Protesting the loss of the land in Sihanoukville’s Commune 1’s Village 1, in the freshwater area of Kbal Chhay, that she claims they had every right to.
“I beg the government and the authorities to help resolve our land issue and release my brother, who was unjustly put in jail,” says Chetana, who works at a Chinese-owned factory.
Chetana holds a land ownership document approved by Village 1’s group leader and witnessed by fellow villagers, but this was not enough for her and her neighbours to keep their homes.
As well as her brother Ouk Chetny, five others were arrested by Preah Sihanouk authorities, then headed by provincial deputy governor Srun Sron. None have yet been set free.
“If the authorities had evicted us from the land and given it to the state, we would not feel so much regret and pain, but they allowed others to come and live on our land. They have already built houses there."
“We do not know what to say to those who came to live on our land, given that they also had their land confiscated by the authorities,” Chetana said.
“So we only request the authorities, especially the government, to help resolve our issue. I spent a lot of money buying that land by taking out bank loans. And now it has been taken from me,” she says.
Some 200 families remain locked in the land dispute. They say they have requested the government to help resolve the issue as the authorities confiscated their land and then proceeded to divide it among other people.
They claim to have proper documents proving they had lived there a long time.
Gathering at the location they say once belonged to them, some of the evicted claim Sron evicted them from the land and then confiscated it to divide among people from other villages, with the authorities allowing them to take the land.
Many of the 200 families say they signed land deed contracts between 2013-2017. The contracts were approved by Suon Sopeap, the leader of Group 18 of Village 1, and were, they say, proof that ownership had been properly transferred.
Pen Vibol, another villager, who received land in Village 1 from the authorities and built a home on it, said the Provincial Hall gave her a land title ticket for a 5m by 20m plot.
“The ticket was issued to recognise the location of the land where we are living. We got it from the Provincial Hall,” Vibol says.
Sorn Sophat, a provincial land community representative who investigated the dispute, said the 200 evicted families had lived on the land a long time.
“I do not know the new villagers who come to live here, but maybe a bad person prepared for them to come here. We just know they are land grabbers. Only the evicted villagers had lived there a long time,” he says.
Sophat adds that the evicted were poor and came to live there to work in factories and on construction sites.
The Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction said it created a team last week to investigate the matter.
Ministry spokesman Seng Lot on Wednesday said the team is due to visit the area, but they have already begun work with relevant authorities.
“The team have begun their work. They are coordinating with local authorities to go down and investigate the situation,” he said.
Provincial hall spokesman Or Saroeun said the position of the local authorities is to work to resolve land disputes for the people based on the law. But it needs to be done step by step.
“We do it step by step. We will coordinate and study the situation. If we find people have lived there for a long time, the authorities will take note and discuss ways to find a solution,” he said.