Area residents claim intimidation, but military and government officials say the land was being illegally occupied by squatter.
VILLAGERS in a Kampot province district at the centre of an ongoing land dispute involving the military say soldiers destroyed their homes Saturday in a bid to strong-arm them from their property so that it could be sold.
Government and army officials, however, say they are only targeting squatters who have recently moved onto the land in Chhouk district's Ta Ken commune.
Some 22 houses were destroyed and a bridge was torched by soldiers from the RCAF's Brigade 31, the same unit involved in earlier land disputes in the area, according to residents.
"After they destroyed other people's homes, the soldiers asked whether we planned to leave," said 68-year-old Roth Sophorn.
"We all said we would not, since this is where we farm and make our living," she said, adding that the community has grown to more than 300 families, from just 50 when the area was first settled in 1996.
She said the bridge was burned by soldiers to prevent help from arriving, and now residents are cut off from the market and schools.
"Now, we cannot leave and our children cannot go to study, and some of us are running out of food," she said.
"We do not leave our homes because we are afraid [the soldiers] will also burn them."
Chang Barang, a resident whose home was destroyed, said soldiers, along with a provincial Environment Department official, arrived after the incident asking villagers for thumbprints for a census.
But he and other residents suspected it was a ruse to get them to sign over their rights to the land. "We are scared about our safety. At night, armed soldiers come to look around our village," he said.
Kong Lum, head of Brigade 31, denied any involvement in the incident by his soldiers, saying that Environment Department officials burned the bridge to prevent villagers from crossing into public land to cut down trees.
An area village chief, Tum Kol, said the problem stemmed from immigrants from neighbouring provinces who flooded into the area thinking that they would qualify for compensation by the state if they squatted on unoccupied land. "I have warned them many times before that new residents are not allowed, but they do not listen," he said.
But Try Chhon, a provincial officer with the Cambodian rights group Licadho, said the conflict had arisen because the government failed to discuss the development with the squatters.
"If they have a plan to develop the area, they must explain clearly the situation and what the villagers will get in return. Otherwise, it is very difficult for the people to cooperate."