HRH King Sihanouk greets villagers from Ratanakkiri at the gate of the Royal Palace March 26.
The King has provided complete justice for us and we will no longer be afraid,"
said Roman Tom from the Jarai village of Chrong in Ratanakkiri.
Tom was one of a seven person delegation that came to Phnom Penh seeking a resolution
to the long running 'salt for land' case.
The case arose after an army general, Nuon Phea, gained title of the land through
dubious means, villagers from Bokeo district said. In 1997, officials working on
behalf of the general tricked inhabitants of three villages - including children
- to thumbprint documents they were told were needed to develop the area.
The 'development documents' were in fact sale documents to register the tribal lands
in the general's name. Legal Aid of Cambodia helped the villagers take General Phea
to the Ratanakkiri provincial court in March, 2001 to have the "sale" of
more than 1,250 hectares of land declared null and void.
During the provincial hearing, local officials admitted receiving $35,000 from General
Phea's representative for the land, but were unable to explain where the money had
More than a dozen villagers testified they had not received payment for the land
and had no intention of consenting to its sale. To the astonishment of legal and
human rights experts, the court upheld the contracts.
The case was then referred to the Appeal Court, so villagers from Chrong village
and the minority Tampuan villages of Chet and Klik made the three-day journey to
the capital. Their expectations were low.
At the Appeal Court hearing March 25 the case was adjourned, but the following day
the villagers were granted an audience with King Sihanouk where they learned that
their land would be returned.
"We did not expect this result but the King was very friendly and he put himself
close to us and shared our feelings," said one villager of the hour-long audience.
"We are very happy with his fair decision. He asked us to tell our villages
that he loves his children, the people."
A representative of Prime Minister Hun Sen also attended the meeting and told the
villagers that the PM had discussed the case with General Nuon Phea.
According to a letter issued by the Prime Minister's Cabinet, the Ministry of Land
Management will purchase the land from General Phea and return it to its original
owners. In return, the villagers were told they must drop both their civil and criminal
cases against the general.
The commune chief of Chet village, John Hloun, said villagers were "very, very
happy" when they were first approached in 1997 by a local district official
and a Bokeo district policeman about a scheme to develop their village.
"They just lied to us," he said.
Across the three poor and isolated villages, the thumbprints of several hundred locals
were collected on the "development agreements". Not everyone consented
so some were pressured to thumbprint documents in the names of family and neighbors.
Even children were used to thumbprint some documents.
"They said: 'We will create a plantation, but if people don't give their thumbprints
then they will not get the benefits and there may be trouble'," said Hloun.
Those who knew how to read were not allowed to see the document.
"They just kidnapped our land," said Hloun, adding that the village was
not interested in receiving any compensation. "They gave us gifts of half a
kilo of salt for each family and one old motorbike, but the bike broke down two days
later. We don't want money, we just want our land back".
The case caught the attention of the UN secretary-general's special representative
on human rights, Peter Leuprecht, who discussed the case with the King during his
most recent visit here in early March.
The King's intervention may have helped the villagers in this case, but it is unclear
whether it will help the dozen or more other hill tribe villages in the province
whose inhabitants are also victims of land grabbing.
The hill tribe people of Ratanakkiri do not fence their land or tether their livestock.
The land is shared by the village, and the elders understand its boundaries from
years of cultivation. Livestock wanders free.
But ride along the dustbowl village roads, and barbed wire fences line the roads
sealing cashew and kapok plantations from the villages.
"When they come here they say they'll just take a small area, but in the end
it's not like that," said Sun Sen, a village elder from Ta'ong II village. Sen
was explaining to the Post the loss of almost all the lands that once belonged to
The Kreung people of Ta'ong II are one village among many that have lost land in
a series of swindles orchestrated through district officials.
"Someone needs money because they can't get enough from selling rice. So they
think: 'We have so much land we can sell a little bit', but they don't think about
the future," explained Sen.
For example, said Sen, a villager sold one hectare of land to a district official,
but when that one hectare was re-sold to Ta Hok, a landowner from Kampong Cham, two
square kilometers were fenced off.
The villagers look on at what was once their land with an overwhelming sense of powerlessness.
If their buffalo wander onto the fenced land, they rarely see them again.
The Kreung villagers used the land for subsistence rice farming and occasionally
produced enough surplus to sell in the market. Nowadays they have to buy their rice
from the local market and are forced to work as day laborers on the cashew plantations,
farming the land that was once theirs on behalf of others.
Those "others" are a small group of military, police and district officials
who have carved up Ratanakkiri between themselves and have developed privately-owned
cash crop farming on land that once belonged to the various indigenous minorities.
"We can't get a result from the court because the people with high power will
use their money to get a good result for themselves," said Sen. "They have
money, we just have our voice, but they don't respect the voice of our people."
NGOs working in the area have found the same district officials involved in land
scams in at least another dozen villages in the area. The villagers at nearby Ta'ong
I do not know about the Bokeo villagers' court action, but they do know the name
of Nuon Phea.
A representative of the district land title office bought a small plot of land from
a member of the village next to Ta'ong I. When the land was sold to General Phea,
the title covered some 300 hectares. Fences started appearing on the villager's chamkas
"We don't want to sell our land. We are angry and so sad about the land we are
losing," said one villager.
The land surrounding their village now has kapok and cashew tree plantations on it.
The villages despair particularly over the effects of the cashews, which drop an
acidic juice into the soil making it impossible to grow rice.
The Cambodia Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights welcomed the Bokeo
decision. In a March 27 statement, the UN body said it was "delighted"
with the result but highlighted the ongoing problem of land disputes.
"More than 1,000 such cases were filed in the courts last year alone,"
the statement read. "We look forward to seeing further positive progress in
the many outstanding cases, in accordance with the new Land Law."
How much "positive progress" is an open question. As one group heads back
to Ratanakkiri, there is no doubt that many ethnic minority villagers are hoping
they too will receive land justice.