Government officials and armed police burnt down 25 homes in Oddar Meanchey province’s Anlong Veng district yesterday claiming they were in the protected Kulen Prumtep Wildlife Sanctuary, villagers and a rights group investigator said yesterday.
The houses, which are part of larger community of about 150 homes in Anlong Veng commune’s O’Ampil village, were burnt down by a joint committee of officials from the Ministry of Environment, police and the army, resident Chhorm Chhoeun said.
He said the land had been sold to the families by an official from the ministry named Ry Heng who had charged between US$1,000 and $1,500 for the 30 by 200 metre plots and said nothing about the area being protected.
“Early in the morning soldiers, police and environment officers came to burn down the villagers’ homes without telling us anything. They just poured petrol on the homes and burned them,” he said.
“We were so surprised when we saw the homes were on fire that some of us did not take any of our possessions in time. Everything was destroyed in the fire.”
Villager Loeum Pheay said armed police and soldiers lead by the director of Kulen Prumtep sanctuary, Kheng Socheat, had threatened to arrest anyone who attempted to obstruct them.
“We are not afraid. We carried knives to protect ourselves because we bought that land from them,” she said.
“Why did they come to burn down our homes and accuse us of living in a protected area? We will still live there even though we don’t have homes because we don’t have anywhere else to go,” Loeum Pheay added.
Kheng Socheat denied setting any homes alight yesterday, claiming his officers had merely attempted to tear their cottages down but had been repelled by knife-wielding villagers.
He dismissed the villagers’ claim that Ry Heng had sold them the land as an unfounded reaction to authorities arresting six members of their community.
Srey Naren, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said burning down homes was not a good approach for environmental officers to take.
“Authorities should choose a peaceful way to talk with villagers. That’s better than using violence,” he said.
In May last year, more than 100 houses were burnt down in the same village by provincial authorities who also accused the home owners of settling on protected land.