Fighting broke out in the capital’s Phnom Penh Thmey commune yesterday as evictees from a formerly united community were blocked from reclaiming their land by the very woman who once represented them.
Dozens of villagers, representing 163 families who were forcibly evicted from the area in 2005, descended on the site of their former homes yesterday morning, armed with tools and pieces of wood, ready to rebuild their lives.
“We will return to live on our land,” they announced in a letter sent earlier this week to Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatevong.
But hopes of a triumphant return were soon destroyed, as their former representative, 56-year-old Chea Sarom, blocked their attempts to build.
Sarom, who represented the evictees in their dispute with businesswoman Keo Neam, led them to victory in 2011, when the Supreme Court ruled that they owned the land.
But the families say that Sarom has since proved a turncoat, and prevented them from returning. Evictees accuse their former representative of putting false names on official documents so that she could claim ownership of the entire plot
Current representative Preoung Socheat told the Post yesterday that all 163 families had been left off of the land documents submitted to the court.
“Chea Sarom had been our representative, but when the court awarded us the land, she claimed to own it. She falsified the names of 163 families,” Socheat said.
Villagers yesterday faced off with their former comrade, who was flanked by a small group of people she said were the real evictees, but who villagers’ claimed were members of her family and hired thugs.
Fighting broke out between the groups intermittently, as Sarom’s supporters stopped the evictees from building by seizing the materials and throwing them out of their reach.
Police and security guards watched on as the two sides fought and exchanged insults.
“I always joined protests with you to demand the land, and I sold my gold … to pay for you. But when you won, you claimed it as your own,” screamed 68-year-old evictee Ngoun Chantha.
But Sarom said her opponents were imposters.
“We have 163 families, so now we don’t let these other families build homes on our land,” she said. “I have never falsified documents.”
In November, Phnom Penh Municipal Court deputy prosecutor Ly Sophana charged Sarom with “breach of trust and false declaration” and put her under court supervision.
A verdict is expected to be handed down at the end of this month.
But despite the pending case against her, Sarom yesterday produced what she said was evidence of the government’s support of her claims.
In a letter dated December 4, Ho Sethy, chief of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cabinet, calls on the Ministry of Land Management and Urban Planning to register the land under the names used in the allegedly falsified documents, as well as to Sarom.
A second letter purportedly penned by Sethy was sent on Monday to Socheatevong, the Phnom Penh governor.
“Please intervene with the Phnom Penh Thmey authorities, [and] Sen Sok district authorities to allow Chea Sarom as representative of 163 families to fill in the land on 9,992 square metres to build houses, and install utilities,” the letter reads.
Attempts to reach Sethy yesterday were unsuccessful.
Keo Sothoth, Phnom Penh Thmey commune police chief, said yesterday that he had not been ordered to support either side.
“We can’t say who is right or wrong, but we are here to prevent any big clashes or violence,” he said.
Mov Manith, deputy governor of Sen Sok district, refused to speak in detail on the phone last night, saying only that the villagers had returned to their homes without building anything on the land.
Nan Ony, a legal officer with the Housing Rights Task Force, said the letters in favour of Sarom should never have been sent.
“The cabinet of the prime minister has not studied clearly the court issues,” he said. “This land belongs to 163 people, not to one person.”